How is the Red Meat Allergen Linked to Heart Disease?

While it’s widely known that eating steak for dinner every night is not a heart healthy diet decision, a surprising new study has found that having a sensitivity to red meat may actually lead to an increase in arterial plaque in these individuals.

What is the Allergen in Red Meat?

Only identified recently, the allergen in red meat, alpha-gal, has been found to lead to red meat allergies to beef, pork, and lamb in certain individuals. These sensitized individuals were initially exposed to the alpha-gal molecules either from a Lone Star tick bite or a cancer drug, known as Cetuximab. Both methods of transmission introduce the alpha-gal molecules to humans and, for reasons that are still unknown, certain individuals then gain sensitivities to red meat. Luckily, having a red meat allergy is rare and researchers estimate that about only 1% of the population in certain areas are affected. However, the number of individuals who develop antibodies in response to the alpha-gal allergen yet do not exhibit significant symptoms is much higher, and is estimated to be approximately 20% of the population in some areas.

What is the Connection between an Alpha-Gal Sensitivity and Heart Disease?

In a recent study performed at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, researchers have analyzed blood samples from 118 adults looking for alpha-gal antibodies, which indicates a sensitivity to red meat. 26% of the 118 samples were detected to have antibodies in response to alpha-gal. The researchers then analyzed the plaque levels in both the sensitized and non-sensitized subjects and discovered that the quantity of plaque was 30% higher in the alpha-gal sensitized patients. Not only was there more plaque, but the plaques also tended to be more structurally unstable, which could lead to an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. It has been hypothesized for some time now that immunological responses may lead to the development of atherosclerosis, or a buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries that hardens over time, narrowing the blood vessels. Although the mechanism of this process is still unknown, this study may pave the way in determining if this finding is merely an association or a direct result of an immunological response.

It’s important to note, however, that this research is still in the preliminary stages and detailed human and animal studies are planned for the future in order to confirm initial findings. It’s recommended that sensitized individuals continue to avoid red meat while also adopting the American Heart Association guidelines for heart healthy living. In the meantime, researchers will continue to study larger populations and work towards detailing a mechanism between the association of an immunological response and atherosclerosis. If a mechanism is discovered, there is hope that one day a target may be identified for preventing/treating heart disease in this subgroup of people with red meat sensitivities. For more information on this recent study, please see the link below:

Weihong Zheng, M.D.