Study finds potential link between eating this meat and developing Type 2 diabetes

Researchers tracked over 216,000 participants for 30+ years.

October 19, 2023, 10:11 AM

A new study has found a link between eating red meat, especially processed red meat, and an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton explained the findings of the study, which was led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published Thursday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Packaged meats in a grocery store.
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"We're talking about lamb, beef, pork, sausage, hot dogs, burgers," said Ashton. "This was a big study, over 200,000 people followed for 30 years, [that] basically found a direct link and association -- didn't show cause and effect, but the more red meat consumed the higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes over that period of time."

Researchers tracked the eating patterns of 216,695 adults over decades and noted whether they developed various health problems, assessing their diet with food frequency questionnaires every two to four years, for up to 36 years. During that time, more than 22,000 participants developed Type 2 diabetes.

The research showed that the more servings of red meat a person ate, the higher was their likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. The study did not conclude that eating red meat causes a person to develop Type 2 diabetes, only that there appeared to be an association.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that if you are getting protein from meat, you should choose lean meats, like chicken breast, over processed meats.

PHOTO: Slices various type of meat, sausage, salami and hams on white tray.
A variety of sliced meats.
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Researchers also noted that people can prevent or offset their potential risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by "substituting one daily serving of red meat for another protein source." They further discovered that "substituting a serving of nuts and legumes was associated with a 30% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, and substituting a serving of dairy products was associated with a 22% lower risk," according to the study.

"That was the silver lining," Ashton said. "They did find consuming as little as half a serving a day of legumes and nuts dramatically lowered that risk."

PHOTO: Different types of raw pork meat and beef.
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Ashton also emphasized the importance of knowing your own risks, and assessing the factors that can contribute to developing Type 2 diabetes, such as genetics, exercise, weight and diet.

"If you have a family history or have had diabetes in pregnancy, you are at higher risk. Getting screened with a simple blood test, everyone should do that regardless of their weight," Ashton encouraged. "But keeping your weight in a healthy range is key for preventing or lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes."

Echoing the study findings, Ashton further said "swapping out proteins" can be beneficial, and that while "we all love our occasional burger," foods like "fish, plant based protein [are] definitely healthier."

Finally, Ashton reminded that exercise is key to good health. "Every little bit counts, including walking, so getting those steps in," she said.

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week, or about 22 minutes a day.

Dr. Liz Ghandakly, from the ABC News medical unit, noted that the study participants were all health professionals, 81% of whom were female and about 90% of whom were white, which she said may limit how broadly the data can be generalized.

The study also relied on participants self-reporting their average frequency of eating certain foods over the past 12 months when they filled out the questionnaire, which could have affected accuracy.

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