People who eat red meat may have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study, recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that even moderate consumption of red meat can heighten the risk of this widespread metabolic disorder.
The study, led by first author Xiao Gu, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Nutrition, builds on prior research indicating a potential link between red meat consumption and type 2 diabetes.
What sets this study apart is its analysis of a large cohort of participants who were tracked over an extended period, adding a heightened level of certainty to the association.
Link between diet and diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is rapidly on the rise in both the United States and globally. Beyond the immediate health implications, this disease is a significant risk factor for a variety of severe health issues, including cardiovascular and kidney disease, cancer, and dementia.
This study incorporated data from 216,695 participants enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study (NSH), NHS II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study. The researchers collected dietary information from participants through food frequency questionnaires administered every two to four years over a period spanning up to 36 years. During this lengthy observational period, more than 22,000 participants were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
The results were clear and concerning. The researchers discovered a strong link between red meat consumption, including both processed and unprocessed varieties, and an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
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Participants with the highest intake of red meat faced a 62 percent greater risk of developing the disease compared to those with the lowest consumption levels.
Notably, each additional daily serving of processed red meat was associated with a 46 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes, while unprocessed red meat raised the risk by 24 percent.
Swapping red meat for plant foods
What makes this study especially impactful is its investigation into the potential benefits of swapping red meat for healthier protein sources.
The findings indicate that replacing a daily serving of red meat with nuts and legumes resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes, while substituting red meat with dairy products led to a 22 percent lower risk.
In light of these findings, the researchers suggested a reasonable dietary guideline for those aiming to optimize their health and well-being is to limit red meat consumption.
“Our findings strongly support dietary guidelines that recommend limiting the consumption of red meat, and this applies to both processed and unprocessed red meat,” Gu said in a statement.
The importance of this study extends beyond individual health and well-being. In addition to health benefits, swapping red meat for healthy plant protein sources would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and provide other environmental benefits, according to the researchers.
This aligns with the growing awareness of the need for sustainable dietary choices to address broader global issues.
The research team believes their findings strongly endorse dietary guidelines that encourage individuals to reduce their red meat consumption. This recommendation is applicable to both processed and unprocessed red meat. As the evidence mounts, the need to reconsider dietary habits becomes increasingly apparent.
Plant-based diet for health
While this study focuses on red meat consumption and its link to type 2 diabetes, it also highlights the critical role dietary choices play in the prevention of various health conditions.
Countless studies point to the benefits of replacing certain animal foods with plant-based options for health. For example, a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases found that increasing the consumption of plant-based protein could significantly lower the risk of chronic kidney disease.
This new study underscores the importance of mindful dietary choices and their far-reaching implications. While the risks associated with red meat consumption have long been suspected, this research provides a more robust and convincing link between red meat and type 2 diabetes.