Heme of consumed red meat can act as a catalyst of oxidative damage and could initiate colon, breast and prostate cancers, heart disease and other diseases

Med Hypotheses. 2007;68(3):562-4. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.08.025. Epub 2006 Oct 11.


Dietary epidemiological studies indicate correlations between the consumption of red meat and/or processed meat and cancer of the colon, rectum, stomach, pancreas, bladder, endometrium and ovaries, prostate, breast and lung, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. The correlation of all these major diseases with dietary red meat indicates the presence of factors in red meat that damage biological components. This hypothesis will focus on the biochemistry of heme compounds and their oxidative processes. Raw red meat contains high levels of oxymyoglobin and deoxymyoglobin and oxyhemoglobin and deoxyhemoglobin and cytochromes in muscle and other tissues. Cooked and processed meat contain hemichromes and hemochromes. After being eaten heme proteins are hydrolyzed to amino acids and peptides and the heme group which is coordinated with strong ligands. The iron of heme coordinates to the sulfur, nitrogen or oxygen of amino acids and peptides and other biological components. The coordinated heme groups are absorbed and transported by the blood to every organ and tissue. Free and coordinated heme preferentially catalyze oxidative reactions. Heme catalyzed oxidations can damage lipids, proteins, DNA and other nucleic acids and various components of biological systems. Heme catalysis with hydroperoxide intermediates can initiate further oxidations some of which would result in oxidative chain reactions. Biochemical and tissue free radical damage caused by heme catalyzed oxidations is similar to that resulting from ionizing radiation. Oxidative biochemical damage is widespread in diseases. It is apparent that decreasing the amount of dietary red meat will limit the level of oxidative catalysts in the tissues of the body. Increasing consumption of vegetables and fruits elevates the levels of antioxidative components, for example, selenium, vitamin E, vitamin C, lycopene, cysteine-glutathione and various phytochemicals. These detrimental processes of heme catalysis of oxidative damage hypothesized here are not well recognized. More investigative studies in this field need to be done.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Colonic Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Heart Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Heme / physiology*
  • Heme / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Meat*
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / epidemiology*


  • Heme