Could Eating Meat Give You Diabetes? A Cardiologist Explains

I know, I know. Here goes Debbie Downer again, bursting your bubble as you consider biting into a sirloin burger, salmon steak, or grilled chicken sandwich. Meat is good for you, right?

With so many doctors writing about the benefits of grass-fed beef, is meat even controversial anymore?

Well, yes. And the risk of developing diabetes mellitus — a disease that causes blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, amputations, and years of lost lifespan — is one big reason to think twice before you reach for that T-bone.

I just returned from an international conference on diabetes and a hot topic of discussion among the scholars was the meat-diabetes connection. A growing body of data in the scientific literature indicates that meat and diabetes go together like surf 'n turf.

Here are a few points to digest as you consider how you want to approach your health:

1. In 1985, the Adventist Mortality Study analyzed the risk of diabetes in 25,000 vegetarians and meat eaters and found that women who ate red meat increased their risk of developing diabetes by 40% and men who ate red meat increased their risk by 80%.

2. In 1999, the Adventist Health Study looked at 34,000 Seventh-day Adventists and found that women who ate meat increased their risk of developing diabetes by 93%, for men the figure was 97%.

3. In 2009, The Adventist Health Study-2 evaluated 61,000 people and found that meat-eaters were twice as likely to develop diabetes as those who were totally plant-based.

4. In a meta-analysis of meat consumption and diabetes, scientists found that for every 3.5 ounces of red meat consumed per day, diabetes risk increased 10%. And for every 1.75 ounces of processed red meat consumed per day (about the equivalent of one packaged hot dog), the risk increased 51%.

On a positive note, researchers also found that the risk for developing Type 2 diabetes dropped significantly when people swapped a serving of meat for a serving of nuts.

5. In the Nurses’ Health Study II, eating processed red meat more than five times a week increased the risk of diabetes by 91% and by 59% for red meat.

6. The recent EPIC-Interact study found that every 10 grams of animal protein consumed daily increased the risk of diabetes by 6%. (Keep in mind that 100 grams is 3.5 oz, so this is a small amount.

7. In the Nurses’ Health Study I and II involving 195,000 participants, diabetes risk went up with the number of times fish was consumed weekly.

OK, phew! That's a lot of science!

I recognize that association does not prove causation, but there is ample reason to suspect that the link between animal products and diabetes is real.

In group comparisons, meat eaters are heavier than those who don’t eat meat; they also consume less fiber, and consume more dietary fat. Dietary fat can lead to increased stores of fat inside cells, which makes cells resistant to insulin.

Increases in body weight, particularly around the abdomen (visceral fat), are pro-inflammatory, which is linked to diabetes. Furthermore, meat-based diets are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers like hs-CRP.

Finally, meat based diets can also have excess amounts of the pro-oxidant iron and preservatives like nitrates, which damage tissues and result in insulin resistance.

But those studies weren't looking at grass-fed beef!

I realize that most of the data in these huge research studies were not derived from people eating grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic free sources of animal meat.

It's common to fall back on such a defense when meat is linked to diseases, but it seems a weak response to such a large data set. Plus, there are no scientific studies to date showing grass-fed meat is not associated with diabetes.

Diet is a personal decision, but in the midst of an epidemic of diabesity soon to impact 100 million Americans (and many worldwide), avoiding diabetes is crucial. Eating meat can now be added to physical inactivity, obesity, excess added dietary sugars, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) as a risk factor for developing diabetes.

Avoiding animal products has been shown to be an effective strategy to manage and reverse diabetes. While documentaries like Fed Up have done a great job focusing on excess sugar in the Western diet, it seems that we're ready for a companion movie (perhaps titled Sweet Meat?), to hit the theaters and expose the risks of eating too much meat.

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