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Red meat impacts glycemic and insulinemic risk factors

Diets high in red and processed meats are associated with elevated risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Steak, fries, and a cocktail. Image (C) Tim Sandle.
Steak, fries, and a cocktail. Image (C) Tim Sandle.

Red meat consumption is associated with increased type 2 diabetes risk, according to a new study. The study, which comes from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, further demonstrates that replacing red meat with plant-based protein sources can reduce risk of diabetes (as well as providing environmental benefits).

Specifically, the study shows that those who eat just two servings of red meat per week may have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to people who eat fewer servings, and the risk increases with greater consumption.

Red meat is typically associated with beef, horse, mutton, venison, boar, and hare.

Insulin resistance is one of the main characteristics of type II diabetes and the new research tallies with other controlled dietary studies that have evaluated the impact of red meat intakes on whole-body insulin sensitivity (when compared to diets with lower red meat intake).

For the research, scientists analyzed health data from 216,695 participants from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), NHS II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). Each person’s diet was assessed through food frequency questionnaires, which participants completed every two to four years. The data expanded to up to 36 years. During this time, more than 22,000 participants developed type 2 diabetes.

The researchers found that consumption of red meat, including processed and unprocessed red meat, was strongly associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Participants who ate the largest quantities of red meat had a 62 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least.

Every additional daily serving of processed red meat was associated with a 46 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and every additional daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 24 percent greater risk.

Senior author Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, tells The Guardian: “Given our findings and previous work by others, a limit of about one serving a week of red meat would be reasonable for people wishing to optimise their health and wellbeing.”

Moreover, diets high in red and processed meats are associated with elevated risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and all-cause mortality, as well as type II diabetes.

Considering vegan and vegetarian diets, the researchers estimated the potential effects of substituting one daily serving of red meat for another protein source. They found that substituting a serving of nuts and legumes was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and substituting a serving of dairy products was associated with a 22 percent lower risk.

The study appears in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, titled “Red meat intake and risk of type 2 diabetes in a prospective cohort study of United States females and males.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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