June 24, 2013

Harvard researchers raise another red flag over red meat

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Program Officer, Eating for the Future

Center for a Livable Future

Veggies instead of meat to reduce type 2 diabetes?

You might want to think twice next time you pick up that pork chop or bite into a beef burger – the evidence linking red meat to health problems just got even stronger.

The same group of Harvard University researchers who incited a media hype in April by linking red meat consumption with mortality just released a new study documenting a connection between red meat intake and type 2 diabetes. While past meta-analyses have also linked both processed and unprocessed red meat with diabetes, the latest study tracked the risk of developing the disease over time with changes in the amount of red meat consumed.

The researchers used dietary intake and health outcome data from three large cohorts of nearly 150,000 health care professionals, updated every four years for up to 16 years of follow-up. They found that the people who increased their intake of red meat by half a serving (around 1.5 ounces) per day had a nearly 50-percent higher risk of acquiring type 2 diabetes over a four-year period compared with those who did not change their meat intake. Consistent with previous studies, the risk was higher with processed meat like hot dogs and bacon. And among those who reduced their red meat intake by at least half a serving per day, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes dropped by about 14 percent over the long term.

While this study is observational and does not prove causation, it does provide stronger evidence that red meat consumption raises the risk of diabetes, a disease that affects almost 26 million adults and children in the U.S.

Many factors contribute to the development of diabetes (physical activity, body weight and body fat distribution, genetics, dietary patterns, to name a few) and the jury is still out for what it is about red meat that might increase risk. In this study, researchers controlled for the role of weight gain and the positive association still held up. This suggests an independent effect of red meat consumption on diabetes risk. While some may point to the high saturated fat content of most red meat, others suggest that an overload of heme iron or the high amount of sodium and nitrites in processed meat could also increase diabetes risk.

What we do know is that this study adds to the mounting evidence linking red meat with a variety of adverse health outcomes. The research documenting the positive health outcomes of largely plant-based diets continues to grow, too. One example is the most recent study showing a 12-percent lower risk of death among vegetarians compared to their meat-eating counterparts. An important take-away from all of these studies is that a healthy diet involves not only cutting back on certain foods like red meat, but also eating more of the nutrient-rich, health-protective foods like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, and low-fat dairy.

So when and how can we start adapting and maintaining these eating patterns to reduce the disease burden in our country? Participating in Meatless Monday is a great place to start. What’s on your plate?

One Comment

  1. Posted by Simon

    low-fat dairy, and to a lower extend seafood is NOT a “nutrient-rich, health-protective food”.

    plenty of study link dairy with health problems and they are not that nutrient rich to begin with. any of the vegan milk will have more nutrition and not have all the potential health hazard that cow’s milk does.

    as for sea food, most of it contains alarming amounts of polutants and heavy metals. there’s nothing there you can’t get with veggies, fruits and nuts which are better for you, your health and the planet.

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