By Stephanie Stahl

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – There’s a new and different link between red meat and heart disease. When doctors talk about beef, they’re usually concerned about fat and cholesterol, but new research says there is an additional concern with a compound that can cause heart attacks and strokes.

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The new link to red meat and heart disease comes from a compound that is made by gut microbes during digestion.

The compound is called TMAO.

“Individuals who eat a diet that’s rich in red meat, have a significant elevation in their TMAO level, about two- to three-fold above those who eat either a white meat for the protein source vs. a non-meat, which is predominantly a vegetable source, or a plant-based protein source,” said Dr. Stanley Hazen.

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Hazen, who leads the research, says the study participants ate the three specific protein diets in random order for one month each.

They suspected the red meat diet could raise TMAO levels. Hazen says his team was surprised to see just how much.

Not only did people on the red meat diet have higher levels of TMAO, their kidneys were less efficient at eliminating dangerous compounds.

But, in reverse, the study says when the people stopped eating red meat, their TMAO levels came back down to normal within three to four weeks.

“We can use a TMAO level to help personalize dietary choices in an individual to help identify, for a given person, how much is too much, and how to try to chase after lowering the level much in the same way we do with cholesterol levels or triglyceride levels, or glucose levels, now by selections, or choices in our diet,” said Hazen.

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Researchers also found that those who ate a white meat or plant-based protein diet actually had suppressed formation of TMAO.

Stephanie Stahl