Will Eating Meat Raise My Diabetes Risk?

This blog was originally published in U.S. News & World Report

If you want to cut your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, you’ve probably heard the same advice over and over: Eat more fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Lose weight if necessary.

But what do experts say about eating meat?

It can be a confusing area because there are studies that have shown an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes in people who eat more red meat or more processed meat, such as hot dogs and bacon.

A study published in September 2017 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that in 63,257 people who were part of the Singapore Chinese Health Study and who ate the highest amount of red meat had a 23 percent higher risk for diabetes over an average 11-year follow-up; the same study found a 15 percent higher risk for those who eat more poultry. Although that’s just one example from the research, there are other studies that have reported similar findings. Sometimes, the risk associated between meat consumption and Type 2 diabetes development is even higher.

There may be a few reasons why some studies connect meat consumption and an increased Type 2 diabetes risk, says Grace Derocha, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Red meat has sodium in it, and that can raise your blood pressure,” Derocha says. “That also increases insulin resistance, so your body isn’t able to use insulin properly.” Plus, the nitrites and nitrates in processed meats also can increase insulin resistance, tipping the risk for Type 2 diabetes even higher, she adds.

Additionally, the heme iron in red meat can cause more inflammation in the body, Derocha says.

Before you throw out your frozen steaks, hold on a second. It’s hard to make conclusions from studies that link food consumption to disease risk, such as the ones in the realm of meat eating and Type 2 diabetes risk, Derocha says. “You’re looking at just a snapshot of that time,” she says. These studies may indicate a link between eating meat – especially red meat – but that doesn’t mean that eating meat actually causes Type 2 diabetes, Derocha explains.

Plus, meat can sometimes have its place in a healthy diet. It has protein to build muscle mass, contains healthy B vitamins and prevents anemia, Derocha says.

Still, in a variety of health research, meat consumption also is linked to chronic illness and cancers, says registered dietitian nutritionist Cordialis Msora-Kasago, founder of The African Pot Nutrition in Menifee, California, and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For this reason, she recommends that her clients, including those at risk for diabetes, eat less of it.

One additional reason to cut back on meat consumption: If you have prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease, says registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Marlisa Brown of Total Wellness Inc. in Deer Park, New York. Eating less healthy meat choices could raise the risk for heart disease.

If you want to cut back on your meat eating or try healthier proteins, here are a few “meaty” suggestions:

Eat meat less often – and watch your serving sizes. One to three times a week is enough, experts say. When you do eat meat, aim for a serving that’s no bigger than three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards.

Watch your cuts. Sirloin, filet mignon, skirt steak, London broil and roast beef are all better choices when you’re eating red meat, Brown says. The more white you see in a cut of red meat, the more saturated fat it has – and that can wreak havoc with your heart health. Lamb, veal and pork can be OK depending on the cut, Derocha says.

Mind your temperature. Meat prepared at higher temperatures, such as a prolonged time over an open flame, has been found to release chemicals that are linked to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Meat prepared at lower temperatures doesn’t appear to have the same risk, Brown says.

Eat more poultry, such as turkey and chicken. These are not usually associated with the negative health effects that tend to be associated with red meat. Aim for skinless options to avoid extra fat.