Even Small Amounts of Red Meat Each Week May Increase Diabetes Risk

Eating too much red meat has been linked with a variety of health issues, including an increased risk of colon and rectum cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. A new study shows that it may not take much to increase that diabetes risk.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently investigated how processed and unprocessed red meat impacts type 2 diabetes risk, with the goal of finding evidence that may support prior studies establishing a link. The findings, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that just two servings of red meat per week were linked with a higher diabetes risk. However, certain protein substitutions were linked with a lower risk. The researchers say their study backs up current recommendations to keep too much red meat off your plate.


Xiao Gu, first author and postdoctoral research fellow at the school’s Department of Nutrition, says, “Our findings strongly support dietary guidelines that recommend limiting the consumption of red meat, and this applies to both processed and unprocessed red meat.”

The study involved health data from more than 215,000 participants in three national studies of health care workers. The participants filled out food questionnaires every two to four years for a period of up to 36 years. Overall, more than 22,000 developed diabetes at some point.

The researchers found that participants who ate the most red meat had a 62% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate the least. Additionally, every extra daily serving of processed red meat was linked with a 46% higher risk of the disease. When it came to unprocessed red meat, that figure was 24% higher.

Steak with vegetables on the side

Are there healthier alternatives that can do the opposite? Possibly. The study showed that substituting one daily serving of red meat with a serving of nuts and legumes was linked with a 30% lower risk of diabetes, and a dairy substitution helped, too, with a 22% lower risk.

So, does that mean you should cut out red meat altogether?

Walter Willett, senior author and professor of epidemiology and nutrition, says, “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 wellbeing.”

Burger made of ground beef

The School of Public Health offers other dietary tips for lowering that diabetes risk: choose whole grains over refined and processed carbs, avoid sugary drinks, opt for healthy fats, and choose plant-based proteins, poultry, or fish.

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