Type 2 diabetes is an all-too-common condition. These days, more than 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, and many millions more have prediabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We know that certain risk factors for diabetes are within our control, such as being overweight or obese and lack of physical activity. The foods we eat are important too, and it’s best to avoid items that are high in sugar. But new research suggests that there may be another, less expected culprit to watch out for on our plates.
The study, which was conducted at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, found that consumption of meat, and to a lesser extent poultry, is linked to a greater risk of developing diabetes.1 These results were based on data relating to 63,257 men and women between the ages of 45 and 74 who participated in the Singapore Chinese Health Study. They were tracked for 11 years, during which time they provided information on their eating habits and medical records.
After comparing the subjects’ diets with diagnoses of diabetes, the investigators discovered that meat intake was a significant risk factor. In fact, the volunteers who consumed the most red meat were shown to have a 23 percent increased risk of developing diabetes, and those who consumed the most poultry had a risk 15 percent higher than their peers who ate the least of these meats.
Why would red meat and poultry influence the likelihood of developing diabetes, which is a condition related to a failure to produce enough insulin or use insulin effectively to regulate blood sugar levels? The researchers theorize that a contributing factor may be the heme iron present in these foods. Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, which is present in plant-based foods, and red meat is a particularly rich source. But even dark meat poultry, such as the thighs and drumsticks, has a relatively high heme iron content. The body cannot regulate the rate of absorption of heme iron, resulting in excess stores accumulating in people whose intake is high. Heme iron intake was found in a 2013 study at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain to raise the risk of new-onset diabetes.2 It should be noted that the presence of heme iron is independent of whether the meat is high or low fat, organic or non-organic, free-range or caged, or even whether it’s grilled or baked—all factors that affect other health risks.
Therefore, the takeaway from the current research is yet another reason to eliminate or at least cut back on meat in your diet. Besides diabetes, red meat consumption has been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Chicken is somewhat of a better choice, particularly if you buy an organic, antibiotic-free variety. And stick with forms of white meat, such as the breasts and thighs, which contain significantly less heme iron. As for fish, yes it contains heme iron, but much less than meat—only about 10-15% of your RDA per serving.
Other, non-animal sources of protein can be easily added to your diet. Certain plant-based foods provide adequate amounts of protein, with no heme iron at all. A few good options are tofu, lentils, black beans, peanuts, chickpeas, and almonds.
Reducing meat consumption can also help keep your weight in check, as eating red meat was shown in a 2009 study at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland to be associated with obesity,3 which is another major risk factor for developing diabetes. Even if you want to keep an occasional piece of red meat on the menu—as long as it is organic and grass fed—it probably won’t have too much of an impact (occasional being defined as once a month or so, not once or twice a week). Processed meats, on the other hand, truly do not belong in anyone’s diet. These foods, such as bacon and cold cuts, are high in dangerous nitrates, and have been found to elevate the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
So try cutting back on your meat and poultry consumption and focus on adding even one fully plant-based dish to your menu per week. Even low-mercury fish is a healthier option. You can increase that a little at a time to adjust slowly. With so many great recipes out there, introducing more vegetarian meals has never been easier. Do some research before your next trip to the supermarket and plan ahead for a meatless meal or two—or adding a little more fish to your diet. It’s a great choice to make to benefit your health!
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