• New research found that two weekly servings of red meat could increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.1
  • Study participants who substituted red meat with plant-based proteins saw a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes.1
  • Experts recommend monitoring red meat consumption and substituting other protein sources for nutritional diversity and insulin-related benefits.

Two weekly servings of red meat could increase type 2 diabetes risk in adults, a new study finds.1

According to new research published last week in the American Journal of Nutrition, two weekly servings of unprocessed red meat is associated with a 51% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.1

Type 2 diabetes means the body isn’t able to properly use insulin. Some people will be able to manage their diabetes with dietary modifications while others may need medication.2

“To simplify, we recommend limiting red meat consumption to no more than two servings per week and once would be better,” Xiao Gu, PhD, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral research fellow in nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Health.

In addition to noting red meat’s negative effect on type 2 diabetes risk, researchers found that participants who substituted plant-based proteins for red meat saw reduced risk for type 2 diabetes.1

Gu explained that plant-based proteins, like nuts and beans, are typically high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats.

“The idea is to substitute red meat, which has traditionally been a major protein source, with healthy plant sources of proteins in a diet,” said Gu.

Here’s how red meat consumption can impact diabetes risk, the benefits of plant-based protein, and why prioritizing lowering diabetes risk is important for overall health.

Woman buying ground beef
GETTY IMAGES / SERGEYRYZHOV

There are a few different aspects of red meat that can interrupt the body’s insulin needs.

Saturated fat can reduce beta cell function and reduce insulin sensitivity, Grace Derocha, RDN, CDES, MBA, a registered dietician and certified diabetes care and education specialist and spokesperson of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told Health.

When this happens, the body may not make as much insulin that is needed to store excess blood sugar.

“Moreover, the insulin that is made may not be as effective to do its job of being the key to open the cells to store excess blood sugar,” Derocha said.

She explained that specifically, the low content of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) in red meat could result in an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, replacing some red meat intake with foods higher in PUFA can reduce insulin resistance.

“The specific PUFA, linoleic acid, being consumed to replace even 5% of the saturated fat [like in red meat], showed reduced insulin resistance,” she said.

But saturated fat content isn’t the only aspect of red meat that could be a hindrance to someone’s insulin.

Derocha explained that the heme iron found in red meat increases oxidative stress and increases insulin resistance. This makes the body more resistant to using insulin effectively.

“Heme iron also impairs beta cell function, which are the cells in the pancreas that make insulin,” she said.

Lastly, processed red meats usually have a high content of nitrates and their byproducts which promotes insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction, a type of non-obstructive coronary artery disease (CAD).

In this condition, Derocha explains there are no heart artery blockages, but the large blood vessels on the heart’s surface constrict (narrow) instead of dilating (opening).

“Non-obstructive coronary artery disease tends to affect more women than men and causes chronic chest pain,” she said.

While these side effects associated with red meat don’t mean you have to entirely cut it out of your diet, it’s important to remain aware of how the protein source could negatively impact different aspects of your well-being.

Benefits of Plant-Based Protein

While red meat may provide some obstacles regarding insulin, plant-based proteins do the opposite.

Gu explained that plant-based proteins are high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. This combination can reduce the major biological mechanisms that can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.

“Our findings strongly support that adoption of this dietary strategy will help reduce individual risk of developing type 2 diabetes and its consequences, which will ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of people worldwide,” he told Health.

The study analyzed red meat consumption in nearly 217,000 females and males in the United States. The increased risk remained strong after adjusting for lifestyle and health factors such as body mass index (BMI), the study authors report.1

The American Diabetes Association recommends limiting red meat intake because it is often higher in saturated fat.3

“This applies to everyone,” Gu said.

Alternative Protein Sources

Derocha recommends the following as alternative protein sources for people looking to cut down their intake of red meat:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Green peas
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Spelt
  • Spirulina
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa

Prioritizing a Lower Diabetes Risk

“Diabetes rates are increasing rapidly in the US and worldwide, which is a red flag that rates of many other serious conditions will follow,” said Gu. “Therefore, dietary guidelines should continue to recommend limiting the intake of red meat and instead choose mainly plant sources of protein or modest amounts of dairy foods.”

According to the 2019 National Diabetes Statistics Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37.3 million (more than 1 in 10) people living in the United States have diabetes.4

And, according to the same report, more than 1 in 5 people with diabetes don’t know they have it.4

“Prevention of diabetes is important because this disease is itself a serious burden, and it also is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and kidney disease, cancer, and dementia,” Gu said.

The connection between cardiovascular disease and diabetes comes down to the high levels of blood sugar seen in diabetes, which damages tissues in all parts of the body, including blood vessels, Gu explained.

The 2019 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) estimated that almost 896,000 deaths were attributable to unprocessed red meat consumption globally.5

Despite these findings, it’s still not as simple as saying everyone should stop eating red meat.

“There may be other specific case-by-case scenarios, where one may benefit from consuming red meat,” Derocha told Health. “But it’s always case-by-case.”

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