Consuming just two servings of red meat per week may elevate the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and the risk appears to grow with higher consumption levels, according to a recent study led by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study also indicates that replacing red meat with healthy plant-based protein sources like nuts, legumes, or small amounts of dairy products is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
The study, scheduled for publication on Thursday, October 19, in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, supports dietary guidelines that advise limiting red meat intake, including both processed and unprocessed varieties, as a measure to reduce type 2 diabetes risk.
While previous research had established a connection between red meat consumption and type 2 diabetes, this particular study stands out for its extensive analysis of type 2 diabetes cases over an extended period, adding a higher level of certainty to the association.
Type 2 diabetes rates are on the rise both in the United States and worldwide. This is a cause for concern, not only due to the disease’s serious health implications but also because it is a significant risk factor for conditions like cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, cancer, and dementia.
To conduct this study, the researchers examined health data from 216,695 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), NHS II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). Dietary habits were assessed through food frequency questionnaires every two to four years over a period of up to 36 years. Over this time frame, more than 22,000 participants developed type 2 diabetes.
The findings indicated a strong link between red meat consumption, both processed and unprocessed, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Those who consumed the most red meat had a 62% higher risk of developing the disease compared to those with the lowest consumption. Each additional daily serving of processed red meat was associated with a 46% higher risk, and each additional daily serving of unprocessed red meat resulted in a 24% higher risk.
The researchers also explored the potential effects of replacing one daily serving of red meat with another protein source. Their analysis showed that substituting red meat with nuts and legumes was connected to a 30% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, while substituting it with dairy products was associated with a 22% lower risk.
In light of these findings and in line with previous research, senior author Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition, suggests that a limit of about one serving per week of red meat would be reasonable for individuals looking to optimize their health and well-being.
Beyond the health benefits, this dietary shift towards healthy plant-based proteins could also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, combat climate change, and provide various environmental advantages, the researchers point out.