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Red Meat Consumption Linked to Increased Type 2 Diabetes Risk

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Eating two servings of red meat per week may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to consuming fewer servings, a new study suggests. The research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that replacing red meat with plant-based protein sources is also associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Swapping red meat for other protein sources

Rates of type 2 diabetes are increasing at a rapid pace, both in the US and worldwide. This represents a serious public health concern, as not only does type 2 diabetes come with a significant disease burden, but it is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, cancer and dementia.

Evidence supporting a link between red meat consumption and type 2 diabetes risk has been uncovered in previous studies – but the current study, led by researchers from Harvard University, adds further weight to this association, following a larger population over a longer study period.

The researchers utilized large amounts of health data gathered from nearly 220,000 participants who took part in three major studies – the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), NHS II and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS).

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Participants’ diets were assessed every 2–4 years for up to 36 years using food frequency questionnaires. Over 22,000 participants developed type 2 diabetes during this period.

The analysis revealed that red meat consumption, whether processed or unprocessed, had a strong association with type 2 diabetes risk. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes was 62% higher among participants who ate the most red meat, compared to those who ate the least.

Furthermore, additional daily servings of processed red meat were associated with a 46% higher risk, while unprocessed red meat was associated with a 24% increased risk.

But could swapping red meat for other protein sources make a difference? The researchers estimated that swapping one portion of red meat for a serving of nuts and legumes was associated with a 30% lower type 2 diabetes risk, while making the swap to a serving of dairy products was associated with a 22% lower risk.

“Given our findings and previous work by others, a limit of about one serving per week of red meat would be reasonable for people wishing to optimize their health and well-being,” said Professor Walter Willett, the study’s senior author and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The authors also note that swapping red meat for healthy plant protein sources could be more environmentally friendly, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reference: Gu X, Drouin-Chartier JP, Sacks FM, Hu FB, Rosner B, Willett WC. Red meat intake and risk of type 2 diabetes in a prospective cohort study of United States females and males. Am. J. Clin. 2023;0(0). doi: 10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.08.021

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Material has been edited for length and content.