Red Meat and Diabetes Risk

July 29, 2013

In the upcoming August issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, read about how red meat consumption may be linked to risk of type 2 diabetes.

Eating more red meat can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a recent study from Harvard University and The National University of Singapore and published in theJournal of the American Medical Association.The study looked at over 100,000 men and women over a four-year period, finding that increasing red meat intake of more than .50 servings per day was associated with a 48% elevated risk of type 2 diabetes.

The association between red meat and diabetes is not new, and other recent studies have demonstrated the connection between eating red meat and having the disease. However, previous studies have concentrated on red meat eating at a baseline without taking possible changes in a person’s eating behavior into consideration. This study acknowledges the possible variability in one’s diet.

“Our analysis methodology is more closely related to real life, because a person’s eating behavior changes over time and measurement of consumption at a single point in time does not capture the variability of intake during follow-up. Our findings provide indirect but very solid evidence regarding the relationship between red meat and type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. An Pan, study co-author.

In the study period, researchers documented 7,540 cases of type 2 diabetes. While increasing one’s red meat elevated the risk of developing diabetes quite substantially, reducing consumption had the opposite effect – though with not quite the same percentages. A reduction of more than .50 servings per day was associated with a 14% lower risk over a four year period for type 2 diabetes than the control group who neither increased nor decreased their red meat consumption, suggesting a prolonged effect.

“Additionally, the absence of a short-term reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes may be the result of higher-risk patients – those with high BMI, lipid disorders, hypertension, or other cardiometabolic risk factors – being most likely to be counseled by their health care providers to reduce red meat consumption. Therefore, the association between reducing red meat intake and type 2 diabetes in this instance may be confounded by those factors,” says Pan.

As expected, increasing red meat intake was associated with weight gain and increases in total energy intake, and decreases in diet quality scores. Even a moderate increase in red meat – anywhere between .15 to .50 servings per day – was associated with an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Reducing red meat took all other scores – weight gain, energy intake, diet quality – in a healthier direction.

Another interesting finding was a greater association among nonobese participants compared with obese participants when it came to their increase of red meat and the resulting association with an increased risk of diabetes. One possible explanation for this, says Pan, is that obese individuals are already at a high risk of diabetes because of their body weight and higher initial red meat intake, and that increasing red meat intake would then only have a modest deleterious effect on the relative scale.

“However, the absolute risk associated with red meat intake among obese individuals is much greater, and thus limiting red meat intake for all body weights is still beneficial,” says Pan.

In terms of how often participants ate meat, answers ranged from never or less than once per month to six or more times per day. Participants consumed unprocessed red meat (3-oz portions) in the form of beef, pork or lamb as a main dish and hamburger, or beef pork or lamb as a sandwich or mixed dish. For processed meat, participants reported dining on favorites like bacon, sausage, salami and bologna. Perhaps not surprisingly, type 2 diabetes associations were greater for processed than unprocessed red meat.

“Retailers and health educators should convey to consumers that there is no need to increase their red meat intake, and that there are many other healthy alternatives, like beans and legumes, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish and poultry. Consumers should also try ways to reduce their intake, particularly of processed red meat,” adds Pan.