How to Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes: Cut Back on Meat

Recent studies strengthen case for plant-based protein

You probably know that eating too much sugar and fat increases your risk of getting type 2 diabetes. But research increasingly shows that a food you might not expect — meat — can dramatically raise your chances as well.

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Your body needs protein. But if you have diabetes or a risk of diabetes it’s wise to cut back on your meat intake to improve your health.

A growing body of research

A recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association examined the deaths of nearly 700,000 people in 2012 from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

They found that nearly 50 percent of the deaths were related to poor nutritional choices. For people who already had diabetes, their risk of death increased if they consumed more processed meats.

Another study released this spring from researchers in Finland analyzed the diets of more than 2,300 middle-aged men, ages 42 to 60. At the outset, none of the participants had type 2 diabetes. In the follow-up, after 19 years 432 participants did.

Researchers found that those who ate more animal protein and less plant protein had a 35 percent greater risk of getting diabetes. This included any kind of meat — processed and unprocessed red meat, white meats and variety meats, which include organ meats such as tongue or liver.

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The study concluded that choosing plant and egg proteins may help prevent type 2 diabetes.

And a final study out of Harvard University found that people who ate a single serving of red meat each day had a 19 percent higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t. An even smaller-sized serving of processed red meat, such as one hot dog or two slices of bacon, increased the risk to 51 percent.

This study concluded that choosing whole grains, nuts, low-fat dairy, fish and poultry instead of red meat lowers your risk of diabetes.

What’s the trouble with meat?

The exact reason why meat — particularly red meat and processed meat — is problematic isn’t known. But researchers believe there are three main components that increase diabetes risk:

  • Sodium, which increases blood pressure, can cause insulin resistance.
  • Nitrites in processed meats may increase insulin resistance and impair pancreatic function.
  • Heme iron found in red meat can cause cell damage and chronic inflammation.

Making a change for better health

If you are at increased risk for getting diabetes or already have it, small changes matter.

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If you eat a lot of red meat, try to cut back. And replacing some meat-based protein with eggs or plant-based protein is your best option. For example, you can get one ounce of protein from:

  • One egg
  • ¼ cup of cooked beans or peas
  • ¼ cup of tofu
  • 2 tablespoons of hummus
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut or almond butter

The fact is, you only need a small amount of protein each day: 5 ounces daily for women and 6 ounces for men. And older adults need even less protein in their diet.

The Finnish study estimated that replacing just 5 grams of animal protein with plant protein each day would reduce your risk of diabetes by 18 percent.

The next time you are planning a meal or eating out make some small adjustments. Try choosing a 5-ounce steak instead of a 10-ounce serving. Also, opting for the chicken or fish instead of a rib eye can help keep your risk down.

Or, better yet, look for plant-based protein options in new recipes or on the menu at your favorite restaurants.

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Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

Sue Cotey, RN, CDE, and Andrea Harris, RN, CDE, are Diabetes Educators with the Lennon Diabetes Center at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center. Sue is the Program Coordinator.