Eating Red Meat Twice a Week Raises Diabetes Risk

A new study adds to the evidence on the link between red meat and diabetes: people who eat just two servings a week may be at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who eat fewer servings.

Researchers analyzed health data from 216,695 participants, most (81%) of whom were females, from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), NHS II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). They filled out food frequency questionnaires every two to four years for up to 36 years. During this time, 22,761 participants developed type 2 diabetes.

"Our findings strongly support dietary guidelines that recommend limiting the consumption of red meat, and this applies to both processed and unprocessed red meat," said first author Xiao Gu, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Nutrition.

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The greater meat consumption, the higher the risk, according to a study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who published their results in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study found that study participants who consumed processed and unprocessed red meat had an increased risk of diabetes. Those who had the most meat intake had a 62% greater risk of developing the condition than the participants who ate the least.

Every additional daily serving of processed red meat was linked to a 46% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whereas every additional daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 24% greater risk.

The study also found that substituting one daily serving of red meat for another protein source may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. For instance, swapping one serving of red meat for nuts and legumes was associated with a 30% lower diabetes risk. Using dairy products as red meat substitutes could lower the risk by 22%.

"Given our findings and previous work by others, a limit of about one serving per week of red meat would be reasonable for people wishing to optimize their health and wellbeing," said senior author Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition.

Besides health benefits, replacing red meat with healthy plant-based protein sources would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Therefore, swapping red meat for plant-based protein sources may not only benefit health but also the planet.

Risks of eating red meat

An estimated 37.3 million people, or 11.3% of the United States population, have diabetes, and the rates are expected to double by 2030. The debilitating condition can lead to cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and blindness, among other complications.

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Type 2 diabetes can be inherited, especially if there is a family history of diabetes, but lifestyle factors also play an essential role. Therefore, consider losing weight if you’re overweight, eating a nutritious, balanced diet, and exercising regularly to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. Monitor your alcohol consumption and cut out cigarette smoking as well.

The American Diabetes Association recommends limiting the intake of red meat. Instead, choose plant-based proteins, such as legumes and a serving of nuts, as well as fish and seafood, poultry, cheese, and eggs.

Red meat is rich in protein and vitamin B12 but lacks other essential nutrients like antioxidants and fiber. Additionally, it is high in saturated fats and is often consumed with excess carbohydrates.

Besides diabetes, studies have associated high consumption of red meat with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, and early death.

While this may be bad news for those hungry for a burger, choosing alternatives will reduce your risk for diabetes and could possibly save your life.

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