Study: Red and Processed Meats Linked to Type 2 Diabetes

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As summer comes to a close, so does BBQ season. That’s a good thing for your health, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which finds that consumption of red and processed meat — including summer cook-out favorites like hot dogs, hamburgers and pork ribs — is associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data on 200,000 men and women who participated in the long-term Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the Nurses’ Health Studies. They also conducted a larger analysis, which included data from other previously published studies, looking at a total of 442,101 participants, 28,228 of whom developed Type 2 diabetes during the study period.

After adjusting for contributing risk factors like age, weight, exercise habits, smoking, genetic predispositions and other dietary factors, the researchers found a strong association between eating red meat, particularly processed meat, and risk of Type 2 diabetes.

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Among their findings:

• Each 2-oz. serving of processed meat, including hot dogs, bacon, salami and other cold cuts, per day accounted for a 51% increase in diabetes risk

• A 3.5-oz. serving of unprocessed red meat, such as hamburger, steak, pork or lamb, per day was linked to a 19% increase in risk of diabetes

• Replacing one serving per day of red and processed meats with healthier options, such as nuts, whole grains and low-fat dairy, accounted for a 16% to 35% reduction in diabetes risk

The researchers weren’t sure exactly why red meat may contribute to diabetes risk, but senior author Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), hypothesized that the high amount of heme iron in red meat could be responsible; iron helps prevent anemia, but the Western diet contains an iron overload, and high levels of iron in the body have been associated with Type 2 diabetes.

NEXT: “Red meat is not benign”

As for processed meats, the high levels of sodium and nitrites could potentially be a factor; diets high in nitrites may increase people’s risk for insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for diabetes.

As with any observational study, the current research does not establish a causal relationship between red meat consumption and diabetes risk, but the evidence that they are associated is fairly strong.

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“Many previous studies have shown the link between processed meats and diabetes, but this is one of the first (large studies) to show that unprocessed red meat is a significant risk factor,” Hu told USA Today. “Clearly, processed meat is much worse than unprocessed meat for raising the risk but unprocessed red meat is not benign.”

With more than 25 million Americans — that’s 8.5% of all adults in the U.S. — affected by diabetes according to the American Diabetes Association, any guidance for reducing that risk is key. That includes maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, cutting out excess sugar, and, according to the new study, reducing our consumption of red and processed meat.

“We should minimize the consumption of processed meat as much as possible and also reduce our consumption of red meat,” Hu told WebMD. “It shouldn’t be the center of our plate.”

The average American currently consumes more than 100 lbs. of red meat each year — far more than is necessary to meet basic dietary protein requirements. Need more reason to cut back? Previous studies have also associated red and processed meat consumption with increased risk of colon cancer and death.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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