Pop culture and medical research suggest that vegetarians and vegans may have longer life spans due to lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases commonly associated with abnormal blood lipids. By avoiding consumption of meat, they reduce their intake of substances such as omega 6 fatty acids, cholesterol, and advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs) found in high quantities in foods cooked at high temperatures such as is typically done with meats. These substances all contribute to inflammation, atherosclerosis, and glycation damage to proteins and fats throughout the body. However, red meats such as beef also contain high quantities of important nutrients that help block these forms of damage to the body but which are found in only low quantities in typical vegetarian foods. These important nutrients include carnitine, carnosine, and vitamin B12. Often vegetarians are severely lacking dietary intake of these nutrients. As a result, their health will suffer even though they have managed to avoid some of the harmful components of animal foods. Ironically, it may be that they could suffer shorter lives due to their common deficiencies of the important nutrients carnitine, carnosine, and vitamin B12 caused by their supposedly healthier diets.
Glycation Causes Sugars to Damage Proteins and Accelerate Aging-Related Damage
Almost every adult would like to slow down aging. It is often one of the motivations for people eating a plant-dominant diet. Glycation damages proteins throughout the body, creating sugar/protein molecules known as Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs). It is related to the browning you see from cooking food. Your body is literally cooking in a similar fashion. The cooking causes more damage with increasing age. People who suffer from diabetes and metabolic syndrome are particularly at risk from age-related diseases caused by the sugar cross-linking of proteins.
Ironically, red meats are among the best sources of strong glycation inhibiting compounds that can slow the aging process and block damage from “accelerated aging diseases” such as diabetes. Incorporating higher levels of glycation blocking compounds may help offset the damages caused by animals’ faster metabolisms and significantly different biologies.
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In recent years, research has found that there are a number of biochemical compounds that can inhibit or even reverse glycation. Carnosine is one of these compounds. Carnitine is another. Carnosine and carnitine are often found in meat products, but seldom found in significant quantities in plant-based food products.
Carnitine and carnosine have similar names and are both found in relatively high quantities in red meats. However, the two are chemically distinct. Carnosine is a dipeptide formed from the amino acids beta-alanine and histidine. Carnitine, on the other hand, is formed from lysine and methionine.
Carnosine does more than just block and reverse AGEs. It is also an antioxidant, a chelator capable of binding to and removing toxic heavy metals from the body, and inhibits oxidation of LDL cholesterol that can lead to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
Carnitine has a plethora of benefits, some of which are similar to carnosine. You can read more about these benefits and the differences between available forms of carnitine supplements in the article L-Carnitine Helps Reduce LDL Cholesterol, Triglycerides, Blood Glucose, and Insulin in Fatty Liver Disease and Diabetes Patients.
Despite the differences, there are a number of common properties to carnitine and carnosine. Both function as antioxidants to reduce oxidative damage to cells. There is evidence that both act to oppose aging processes, but the mechanisms are somewhat different. Carnosine is particularly well known for its ability to directly reduce glycation to proteins.
Carnitine, by contrast, appears to act more indirectly on glycation by helping mitochondria to run on long chain fatty acid fuel sources and thereby making it possible for cells to have adequate energy to operate without needing elevated glucose levels that can lead to diabetes and metabolic syndrome and their accompanying rapid glycation damage.
Another important similarity between the two is that vegetarian diets tend to result in increased risk of deficiencies of both carnitine and carnosine because plants are poor sources for both. Thus vegetarians and especially vegans are likely to benefit from supplementation with these two natural compounds. Although there are many benefits to eating a diet of mostly plant foods, the chronic lack of carnitine and carnosine are likely major reasons behind findings that vegetarians often have shorter lifespans than omnivores who eat a mix of meats and plants.
In aging people, carnosine and carnitine levels plummet. That’s likely due in part to lower levels of stomach acids needed to digest proteins and therefore lower levels of amino acids necessary to synthesize carnosine and carnitine.
The recently published The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life discusses how carnosine and carnitine both help reduce the ravages of aging. The book also offers many other insights into fighting aging and age-related diseases with nutrition. Age-related declines in carnosine and carnitine appear to have a significant impact on overall damage from aging, thus the book discusses the benefits of both nutrients.
For the vegetarians and vegans reading this article, I’d strongly urge you to consider adding both carnitine and carnosine supplements to your nutritional program. You’re unlikely to be able to get appreciable levels of these important nutrients without using supplements.
For the omnivore and carnivore readers, I’d suggest you cut back a bit on the meat, boost the vegatable intake, and boost your carnitine and carnosine with supplements that can offer much higher levels of carnitine and carnosine without the artery-clogging fats you find in red meats.
Carnitine and Carnosine Supplements
You won’t find carnitine and carnosine in multivitamins, at least not any common ones. You will therefore have to obtain them as individual supplements or combined with other anti-aging nutrients such as glycation-inhibiting benfotiamine (a fat-soluble form of vitamin B1) and the syngergistic antioxidant alpha lipoic acid that vastly boosts the effectiveness of carnitine.
Carnosine is broken down by the body by an enzyme known as carnosinase. It appears that most people will need to take at least 1000mg per day, perhaps as much as 2000mg per day, of carnosine in order to overcome the breakdown and maintain reserves of carnosine that would leave measurable amounts of it in the blood acting to block glycation damage. A half pound of ground beef contains around 250mg of carnosine, so you’d have to eat two to four pounds of ground beef per days to get enough carnosine to achieve this anti-glycation effect.
Carnitine is also found in ground beef at around 160mg to 200mg in half a pound. Some estimates are that 500mg of carnitine per day should be enough for many people, but there are benefits for elevated consumption of carnitine up to at least 2000mg per day in divided doses of up to 1000mg at a time. Carnitine is “supercharged” by the potent antioxidant lipoic acid (also known as alpha lipoic acid or ALA) and lipoic acid is supercharged by carnitine, so it is best to take some lipoic acid with the carnitine for best effect. The article L-Carnitine Helps Reduce LDL Cholesterol, Triglycerides, Blood Glucose, and Insulin in Fatty Liver Disease and Diabetes Patients has more information on the various forms of carnitine and lipoic acid available today.
Other Glycation Blocking Compounds
Some other compounds that have been identified with abilities to block or reverse glycation include:
- Benfotiamine: a fat-soluble form of thiamine (vitamin B1)
- Pyridoxamine: one of the natural forms of vitamin B6
- Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate: bioactive form of vitamin B6 (also known a P5P)
- Taurine: natural amino acid that some studies indicate prevents glycation in diabetic rats
- Aminoguanidine: investigational drug that inhibits glycation
The first four on the list are particularly worth a strong look for those seeking to maximize the anti-aging potential of their diets. Pyridoxamine has become hard to find recently because of FDA biased action reclassifying this natural nutrient found in many poultry products as a “drug” to benefit its pharmaceutical company allies so they can charge immense prices for anti-diabetic medications incorporating it. Fortunately, P5P works very similarly to pyridoxamine. Benfotiamine, P5P, and taurine remain readily available and relatively inexpensive supplements.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency Rampant in Vegans
Vegetarian and especially vegan diets are major contributors to deficiencies in vitamins B12. In a recent study, 52% of vegans were found to be deficient in vitamin B12 as shown by blood test results. This is particular ironic because the vegans were on average 10 years younger than the omnivores and 3 years younger than the vegetarians, thus strongly indicating that a vegan diet can cause problems even in the young.
BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVES: Vegans, and to a lesser extent vegetarians, have low average circulating concentrations of vitamin B12; however, the relation between factors such as age or time on these diets and vitamin B12 concentrations is not clear. The objectives of this study were to investigate differences in serum vitamin B12 and folate concentrations between omnivores, vegetarians and vegans and to ascertain whether vitamin B12 concentrations differed by age and time on the diet.
SUBJECTS/METHODS: A cross-sectional analysis involving 689 men (226 omnivores, 231 vegetarians and 232 vegans) from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Oxford cohort.
RESULTS: Mean serum vitamin B12 was highest among omnivores (281, 95% CI: 270-292 pmol/l), intermediate among vegetarians (182, 95% CI: 175-189 pmol/l) and lowest among vegans (122, 95% CI: 117-127 pmol/l). In all, 52% of vegans, 7% of vegetarians and one omnivore were classified as vitamin B12 deficient (defined as serum vitamin B12 <118 pmol/l). There was no significant association between age or duration of adherence to a vegetarian or a vegan diet and serum vitamin B12. In contrast, folate concentrations were highest among vegans, intermediate among vegetarians and lowest among omnivores, but only two men (both omnivores) were categorized as folate deficient (defined as serum folate <6.3 nmol/l).
CONCLUSION: Vegans have lower vitamin B12 concentrations, but higher folate concentrations, than vegetarians and omnivores. Half of the vegans were categorized as vitamin B12 deficient and would be expected to have a higher risk of developing clinical symptoms related to vitamin B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is a common ingredient in multivitamins that many vegetarians take. What they may not know, however, is that the common cheap form of vitamin B12 known as cyanocobalamin is poorly absorbed in many people and additionally requires conversion to the active form, methylcobalamin, before the body can utilize it. Methlycobalamin supplements are less common, but they should be investigated particularly by vegans and older vegetarians because vitamin B12 absorption efficiency declines significantly in aging people.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies have been tied to a number of common ailments. These include abnormal blood clotting disorders, depression, and elevated homocysteine leading to cardiovascular disease.
Homocysteine is an amino acid that damages cardiovascular health. High homocysteine levels in blood can often be reduced by a combination of vitamin B12, folate, vitamin B6, and trimethylglycine (TMG) or betaine supplements that help the body convert toxic homocysteine into safe methionine.
Folic acid is often included in multivitamins that have vitamin B12. It has similar bioavailability problems as vitamin B12. Folate deficiencies often result in health effects similar to vitamin B12 deficiencies. Each nutrient can mask some of the symptoms of a deficiency in the other, too, meaning that it is often safest to supplement with both nutrients.
The preferred form of folate is L-methyltetrahydrofolate or L-MTHF (also known as 5-MTHF or L-methylfolate). Healthy people can convert folic acid to the active L-MTHF form. Unfortunately, a significant number of people have genetic conditions that impede this conversion. Thus it is possible that even a vegetarian getting a lot of folate from green leafy vegatables (a good source of folate) could still suffer from a folate deficiency because of an inability to activate the folic acid. Supplementing with active L-methylfolate is an added safeguard, even for vegetarians and vegans who might otherwise think they have little chance of folate deficiency.
Food Preparation: Raw and Boiled Have Advantages
Even for vegetarians and vegans, there is often room for improvement in food preparation to get even better health effects. Many plant-based food products can be easily cooked at lower temperatures or cleaned and eaten raw or with light steaming. The method of cooking what you eat has a major effect on your dietary intake of unwanted AGEs. For instance, tofu is normally thought of as a healthy food and certainly is one that is often consumed by vegetarians. Yet broiled tofu has about 5 times the AGE content as raw tofu! The lesson is that foods which are safe to eat raw or cooked at low temperatures, such as boiled, generally contain less damaged proteins than the same food prepared with high temperature methods such as frying, broiling, and baking.
Even if you eat raw and boiled foods, your body is still cooking itself from inside and making AGEs every day. Consequently, dietary supplements that can help block and reverse AGE buildup can benefit your health.
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