Red Meat & Type 2 Diabetes Link: What You Need to Know

Many factors go into the development of type 2 diabetes, but eating habits are one that public health agencies focus on. Now, new studies and research have found that one particular food may raise the risk of developing the disease — red meat.

It’s the key takeaway from the latest study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study analyzed data from almost 217,000 healthcare professionals collected over several decades and discovered the more red meat people consumed, the higher the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The differences were substantial. Individuals who had two servings of red meat per day had a 62% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared to those who ate two servings of red meat per week. Individuals were also increasingly likely to develop type 2 diabetes if they ate processed vs. unprocessed red meat.

The study found people who exchanged one serving of red meat for legumes and nuts had a 30% lower risk of type 2 diabetes. By substituting one serving of dairy for red meat, researchers said people are linked with a “significantly lower risk” of type 2 diabetes.

Around one in 10 Americans have diabetes, and up to 95% of those have type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, what is the connection between type 2 diabetes and red meat, and how concerned should you be? Read on how experts break it down.

Is there a link between red meat and type 2 diabetes?

It’s critical to state that the previously mentioned study was observational and found a relationship between type 2 diabetes and red meat. This means that the study didn’t see that red meat is a cause of type 2 diabetes, only that there is a link between the two. 

Experts say there may be a few factors involved. Weight is one. Individuals in the study who consumed higher amounts of red meat also tended to be obese or overweight; Jessica Cording, R.D., M.S., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety, points out, “Having overweight or obesity does increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and other conditions,” says Cording. “These people seem to consume more calories overall and were less physically active. That could have been part of the picture.”

There might also be something about the red meat itself that is a problem, says an associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Preventative Nutrition Sciences at the Rutgers University School of Health Professions, Deborah Cohen, D.C.N. Red meat is high in saturated fat and calories, which research has found can reduce insulin sensitivity, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps sugar enter the cells in the body where it’s used for energy, said Cohen.

The researchers working on the study noted high plasma ferritin levels — indicative of how much iron is in someone’s body — may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. “We need enough iron, but when we have too much, there’s the possibility of cell damage,” says Cording. “When we’re talking about diabetes risk, damage to cells in the pancreas has been linked to insulin resistance and inflammation.”

There are additional factors about meat that may influence type 2 diabetes risk as well. “Red meat contains other substances such as nitrates and their by-products, which could also reduce insulin sensitivity and contribute to type 2 diabetes,” says Cohen.

Nutritionists also point to other factors outside diet that increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Certainly, there are other risk factors associated with the development of type 2 diabetes, including low physical activity, genetics/family history, history of gestational diabetes, older age, race/ethnicity,” says Cohen. “Some are modifiable — physical activity weight, diet — and others are not — age, race/ethnicity.”

Is eating red meat ok?

There has been a plethora of research linking red meat to severe heart conditions, including heart disease and cancer, but some data has shown concerns about red meat have been overblown. The data has been challenged and raised many questions about whether or not it is ok to consume red meat.

As many as 74% of Americans eat processed or red meat on a particular day, but research shows that 50% of beef consumed in the U.S. on any day is eaten by 12% of the population.

U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the intake of red meat — including processed meat — to around a serving per week. The latest findings “do make a point for moderation,” says Cording.

If you are a heavy red meat eater, Cording suggests swapping more protein sources and fat like beans, dairy, and legumes. “These foods may have compounds that are protective against type 2 diabetes,” says Cording. “Beans and lentils are very high in fiber, which helps stabilize blood sugar. Fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir has also been found to be protective.”

However, Cording says you don’t need to swear off red meat completely. “If you love red meat and want to have it, I recommend enjoying it up to once a week,” she says, “Choose a type that you really love so that it will be satisfying.”

If you are worried about your diabetes risk, Cording suggests talking to your doctor. They should be able to advise you about personal risk factors and the next steps.