Gut Microbes Could Finally Settle the Debate Over Whether Red Meat Is Unhealthy
In different countries' national dietary guidelines, red meats (beef, pork, and lamb) are often confined to a very small corner. Swedish officials, for example, advise the population to "eat less red and processed meat". Experts in Greece recommend consuming no more than four servings of red meat — not per week, but per month.
"Humans 100% rely on the microbes to digest this food."
Yet somehow, the matter is far from settled. Quibbles over the scientific evidence emerge on a regular basis — as in a recent BMJ article titled, "No need to cut red meat, say new guidelines." News headlines lately have declared that limiting red meat may be "bad advice," while carnivore diet enthusiasts boast about the weight loss and good health they've achieved on an all-meat diet. The wildly successful plant-based burgers? To them, a gimmick. The burger wars are on.
Nutrition science would seem the best place to look for answers on the health effects of specific foods. And on one hand, the science is rather clear: in large populations, people who eat more red meat tend to have more health problems, including cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and other conditions. But this sort of correlational evidence fails to settle the matter once and for all; many who look closely at these studies cite methodological shortcomings and a low certainty of evidence.
Some scientists, meanwhile, are trying to cut through the noise by increasing their focus on the mechanisms: exactly how red meat is digested and the step-by-step of how this affects human health. And curiously, as these lines of evidence emerge, several of them center around gut microbes as active participants in red meat's ultimate effects on human health.
Dr. Stanley Hazen, researcher and medical director of preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, was one of the first to zero in on gut microorganisms as possible contributors to the health effects of red meat. In looking for chemical compounds in the blood that could predict the future development of cardiovascular disease, his lab identified a molecule called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Little by little, he and his colleagues began to gather both human and animal evidence that TMAO played a role in causing heart disease.
Naturally, they tried to figure out where the TMAO came from. Hazen says, "We found that animal products, and especially red meat, were a dietary source that, [along with] gut microbes, would generate this product that leads to heart disease development." They observed that the gut microbes were essential for making TMAO out of dietary compounds (like red meat) that contained its precursor, trimethylamine (TMA).
So in linking red meat to cardiovascular disease through TMAO, the surprising conclusion, says Hazen, was that, "Without a doubt, [the microbes] are the most important aspect of the whole pathway."
"I think it's just a matter of time [before] we will have therapeutic interventions that actually target our gut microbes, just like the way we take drugs that lower cholesterol levels."
Other researchers have taken an interest in different red-meat-associated health problems, like colorectal cancer and the inflammation that accompanies it. This was the mechanistic link tackled by the lab of professor Karsten Zengler of the UC San Diego Departments of Pediatrics and Bioengineering—and it also led straight back to the gut microbes.
Zengler and colleagues recently published a paper in Nature Microbiology that focused on the effects of a red meat carbohydrate (or sugar) called Neu5Gc.
He explains, "If you eat animal proteins in your diet… the bound sugars in your diet are cleaved off in your gut and they get recycled. Your own cells will not recognize between the foreign sugars and your own sugars, because they look almost identical." The unsuspecting human cells then take up these foreign sugars — spurring antibody production and creating inflammation.
Zengler showed, however, that gut bacteria use enzymes to cleave off the sugar during digestion, stopping the inflammation and rendering the sugar harmless. "There's no enzyme in the human body that can cleave this [sugar] off. Humans 100% rely on the microbes to digest this food," he says.
Both researchers are quick to caution that the health effects of diet are complex. Other work indicates, for example, that while intake of red meat can affect TMAO levels, so can intake of fish and seafood. But these new lines of evidence could help explain why some people, ironically, seem to be in perfect health despite eating a lot of red meat: their ideal frequency of meat consumption may depend on their existing community of gut microbes.
"It helps explain what accounts for inter-person variability," Hazen says.
These emerging mechanisms reinforce overall why it's prudent to limit red meat, just as the nutritional guidelines advised in the first place. But both Hazen and Zengler predict that interventions to buffer the effects of too many ribeyes may be just around the corner.
Zengler says, "Our idea is that you basically can help your own digestive system detoxify these inflammatory compounds in meat, if you continue eating red meat or you want to eat a high amount of red meat." A possibly strategy, he says, is to use specific pre- or probiotics to cultivate an inflammation-reducing gut microbial community.
Hazen foresees the emergence of drugs that act not on the human, but on the human's gut microorganisms. "I think it's just a matter of time [before] we will have therapeutic interventions that actually target our gut microbes, just like the way we take drugs that lower cholesterol levels."
He adds, "It's a matter of 'stay tuned', I think."
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI