Does Eating Red Meat, Processed Deli Products Boost Your Diabetes Risk?

With Shira Zelber-Sagi, RD, PhD, Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE, and Larry Tucker, PhD

If your meal of choice regularly includes red and processed meats, often grilled or fried to ''well-done'' status, you may be increasing your risk of diabetes and liver issues.

A new study from Israel found that a diet with higher levels of those foods substantially increases the risk of insulin resistance (making your blood sugar levels rise to unhealthy levels). The foods also boost the risk for a liver condition known as NAFLD—non-alcoholic fatty liver disease—which is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D).1

It's not just the amount of meat that matters but also the method of cooking,1 says the study leader, Shira Zelber-Sagi, PhD, RD, head of the nutrition, health and behavior program at the University of Haifa and the Tel-Aviv Medical Center in Israel. She explains, "High consumption of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, form when cooking meat at higher temperatures for a long duration, and meat cooked in certain methods (grilled or broiled to a level of well done and very well done or fried) significantly increase the chance for insulin resistance."

Findings from a Harvard-led study, appearing in Diabetes Care, confirm that preparing meats using an open flame or at high-temperature for both red meat and chicken was associated with an increased T2D risk among adults who consume animal meats at least twice a week.2

Meat Portions May Be Linked to Diabetes Risk

The Israeli researchers gathered information on meat-eating habits from 357 adults, ages 40 to 70 years.  They divided them into those who ate less than 1.1 daily portion of meat—that was the median intake--and those who usually had more. A portion was considered about 3.5 ounces.

Out of the total participants, 39% had liver disease and 30% had insulin resistance.

"In our study, one portion of meat translates to about 100 grams (3.5 ounces)," Dr. Zelber-Sagi says. Her team found that ''a weekly consumption of more than two servings of red and/or processed meats is associated with NAFLD and insulin resistance."

Having a weekly consumption of more than one portion of processed meat was linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance, which predisposes someone to develop diabetes. Unhealthy cooking methods seem to increase insulin resistance risk, too.1,2 Fatty liver disease is linked to a higher diabetes risk, and many people with type 2 diabetes already have NAFLD.

Despite the findings, Dr. Zelber-Sagi emphasized that red meat has healthy nutrients, including ''protein, iron, zinc, and B12 vitamin." She advises choosing leaner cuts of meat and unprocessed deli meats like turkey or roast beef, and avoid meats that grilled to well-done or fried. "It may be better to choose roasting or baking," when cooking your meat and poultry, she says.

What Do Our Health Providers Say?

Three US experts, including members of the EndocrineWeb advisory board, weighed in, and not all agree that the study demonstrates a strong link between meat-eating habits and insulin resistance risk or liver disease risk.

An overall unhealthy lifestyle is what promotes insulin resistance, says Elena Christofides, MD, FACE, CEO of Endocrinology Associates in Columbus, Ohio, voicing some concern about limitations in the research.

She is not convinced of a link between processed meat, red meat and insulin resistance based on this new study. Those who ate higher amounts of meat also tended to drink more alcohol, to get less physical activity, and to smoke, for instance; although the researchers say the link held even when they took those factors into account.

“The big picture is what is important,” Dr. Christofides says. She tells patents to focus on eating healthy, enjoying all foods in moderation, managing their weight, and getting some physical activity every day.

In a previous study,3 Larry Tucker, PhD, a professor of exercise sciences at Brigham Young University, found that a diet of moderate or high meat intake was linked with increased insulin resistance in the nearly 300 non-diabetic women he studied. However, he explains that the link may be driven by high body fat and a higher body mass index (BMI) rather than the meat intake per se.

Also, eating very lean mean (eg, chicken, fish, turkey) was not linked with increasing insulin resistance.3 Very lean meat, according to the American Diabetes Association, has zero to 1 grams of saturated fat per ounce whereas high-fat meat has 8 grams per ounce.4

Take A Closer Look At Your Eating Choices

Dr. Tucker tells EndocrineWeb that the new findings  ''are consistent with the [medical] literature. Each year, more and more evidence indicates that red meat and processed meat increase the risk of disease and are not the best choices."

Experts offer a number of ideas as to why red and processed meat may affect diabetes risk. The iron in red meat may increase oxidative stress and increase insulin resistance. High levels of amino acids found in red meats may interfere with the normal metabolism of blood sugar, which can promote insulin resistance.4

Dr. Tucker points to the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which note that lower intake of meat including processed meats and poultry can reduce the risk of heart disease.5 Some evidence suggests those eating habits may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and other ills, according to the guidelines.5

It is important to keep the study findings in perspective, says Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE, program coordinator at the Teen and Adolescent Diabetes Transition Program at the University of Chicago's Kovler Diabetes Center.

"I think what we can take away from this is that larger quantities of red and processed meats may increase risk. But one food does not topple the entire diet. What we do need is to focus on food patterns, and choosing eating habits that can reduce [disease] risk," she tells EndocrineWeb.

None of the researchers or practitioners have any relevant financial disclosures.   

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