WASHINGTON, June 19, 2013 – A study published last week found a strong correlation between red and processed meat consumption and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Even though previous studies have linked red meat consumption and the risk of developing diabetes, this is believed to be the first to track changes in red and processed meat consumption and the risk of developing diabetes over a long period.
Conducted by researchers at the National University of Singapore, the data utilized came from three long-running Harvard University studies: the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the two Nurses Health Studies. The studies comprised over 150,000 male and female participants who were followed for an average of 20 years.
The study tracked diet and dietary changes, including meat consumption, through detailed dietary questionnaires administered every four years. It also took into account lifestyle factors like activity level, smoking, and body weight.
The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), were startling—and depressing for meat lovers. According to researchers, subjects who increased their red meat consumption by just 3.5 servings per week (or one half a serving per day) had a 48 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the following four years.
On the other hand, those who decreased their red meat intake did not present any short-term decrease in their risk for developing diabetes in the next four years and only a 14 percent reduction in risk during the next 10 years.
In line with other previous studies, the present study found that higher consumption of processed meats was more strongly associated with the risk of developing diabetes.
However, researchers and physicians point out that body weight is still the most significant factor in the risk of developing diabetes. It is also important to remember that the study is observational and does not show proof of cause and effect.
The precise reason why red and processed meats may lead to a higher risk of diabetes is still not fully understood.
Some researchers hypothesize that most meat’s high fat and caloric content creates a higher risk of diabetes. Others believe that the nitrites and sodium in processed meats may increase the risk of diabetes. However, when this study controlled for weight gain and overall diet quality, the link between red meat and diabetes risk remained, suggesting that red meat consumption affects diabetes risk independent of body weight or processing.
Other researchers think that red meat consumption can cause an iron overload, a risk factor for diabetes that causes insulin resistance. Another hypothesis is that compounds that occur in red and especially processed meats called nitrosamines cause pancreatic damage and inflammation that may play a role in the development of diabetes.
“The interaction of the many genetic and lifestyle factors that contribute to the cause of type 2 diabetes is remarkably complex and still not well understood,” says William J. Evans, adjunct professor of geriatric medicine at Duke University and head of the Muscle Metabolism Discovery Performance Unit at GlaxoSmithKline. “The major factors associated with risk are levels of physical activity, body fatness, distribution of body fat and diet.”
In the editorial that accompanied the study, Evans warns that red meat should not be completely cut out of diets. He instead suggests health messages focus on a decrease in saturated fats and the consumption of high quality protein including cuts of meat that are lower in fat, fish, poultry and low fat dairy products.
In other words, it may be better to change the kind of meat you eat (from a fatty cut to a lean cut, or from processed to unprocessed) than to cut out meat altogether.
For now, most researchers suggest a decrease in high fat red and processed meat consumption and incorporating more whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and nuts to a healthy diet and exercise regime.
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