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New research suggests that eating just two servings of red meat a week can increase your risk type 2 diabetes but substituting at least one serving with a plant-based protein can help lower that risk by 30%. sergeyryzhov/Getty Images
  • Results from a large observational study suggest that eating just two servings of red meat a week can increase your type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Swapping red meat with plant-based proteins was linked with a reduced type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Experts say these results highlight the importance of dietary choices in managing your risk of developing chronic illnesses.
  • Good plant-based swaps include tofu and tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds.

A new study has found that replacing red meat with plant-based protein sources may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and provide environmental benefits too.

The study, conducted by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people who eat just two servings of red meat per week may have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to people who eat fewer servings.

The risk was shown to increase with greater red meat consumption.

Meanwhile, replacing red meat with healthy plant-based protein sources, such as nuts and legumes, or modest amounts of dairy foods, was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Researchers analyzed health data from 216,695 participants. Their diets were assessed with food frequency questionnaires every two to four years, up to 36 years.

Participants who ate the most red meat during this time had a 62% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least.

Every additional daily serving of processed red meat was associated with a 46% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and every additional daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 24% greater risk.

When looking at the effects of substituting one daily serving of red meat for another protein source, such as nuts and legumes, researchers noted a 30% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

As well as offering health benefits, the study authors say swapping red meat for healthy plant protein sources would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and provide other environmental benefits.

Here, we ask two experts what they make of these findings.

Nutritionist Rebecca Heald says the findings of this study align with existing knowledge about the relationship between red meat consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

“It’s not surprising that the study confirms a link between higher red meat consumption and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as previous research has suggested such a connection,” she points out. “However, the extent of the risk increase, particularly in the context of just two servings per week, may be somewhat surprising to some.”

While Heald believes these findings underscore the importance of dietary choices in managing the risk of chronic diseases, she says we should interpret them with caution.

“It’s important to emphasize that this study is an observational study, which means it can show associations between variables but cannot establish causation,” she explains. “In the case of the relationship between red meat consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes, while the study provides compelling evidence of a connection, it cannot definitively prove that red meat directly causes diabetes.”

In particular, she says it doesn’t take into consideration other factors, such as other dietary choices, physical activity, and genetics, which can also influence the risk of type 2 diabetes.

According to Claire Lynch, a dietitian and diabetes specialist at Plant Based Health Professionals, one key factor is that red meat is high in fat and this contributes to weight gain.

“If we eat too much fat we can start to store our excess fat around the middle of our bodies, and this often means we are building up what we call visceral fat, which is stored around the organs inside our abdomen,” Lynch explains.

In turn, the cells in some of our organs can become insulin-resistant.

“Insulin is a hormone that is released by the beta-cells of the pancreas, and it should help to move glucose from the blood into the cells where it is needed for energy. But if the cells become insulin resistant, insulin can’t do its job properly,” Lynch says. “Therefore, the glucose stays in the blood and blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels start to rise.”

Eventually, this can lead to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.

Some of the compounds found in red meat may also contribute to an increased type 2 diabetes risk.

“Inflammation can be triggered by compounds in red meat that promote inflammatory cytokines,” Lynch explains.

“These cytokines are part of your immune system, but should only be in your body short term while fighting disease or helping to heal a wound.

“If they are present regularly it can cause low-grade chronic inflammation, which is damaging to cells and causes insulin resistance, therefore increasing the risk of diabetes.”

On the other hand, Lynch says plant-based proteins are full of beneficial compounds and nutrients such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

As the study suggests, swapping red meat for plant-based options doesn’t just have a positive impact on your health, but on the environment as well.

A study published in 2021 found that meat accounts for 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production.

Heald says the idea that swapping red meat for plant-based protein sources benefits the environment is supported by numerous studies.

“Reducing red meat consumption can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land and water usage, and alleviate some of the environmental pressures associated with livestock farming,” she explains.

Lynch is equally positive about the benefits, describing the impact on the environment as “huge.”

Referencing a 2018 study, she says, “Meat and dairy production use 83% of farmland and produce 60% of agricultural GHG emissions, whilst only providing 18% of calories and 37% of protein. Even the production of meat and dairy with the lowest environmental footprint is less sustainable than the worst performing plant food source.”

Whether it’s the environmental or health benefits that have swayed you, you might be thinking of swapping a serving or two of red meat each week for a plant-based substitute.

The study authors say a limit of about one serving per week of red meat would be reasonable for people wishing to optimize their health and well-being.

If this doesn’t feel achievable for you, even swapping one or two servings of red meat a week is a good start.

“Great sources of protein are tofu and tempeh, legumes (beans, peas and lentils, including chickpeas), some whole grains such as quinoa (really a seed!) and buckwheat, nuts and seeds,” says Lynch.

She says an easy starting point is learning to make a great plant-based ragu or bolognese, as this can be then be used in many classic dishes, like shepherd’s pie, lasagne, and spaghetti bolognese.

“Don’t be afraid to use plant-based meat alternatives sometimes,” Lynch adds.

“They are great for easy quick swaps and for when you are starting this journey. Yes, they are processed, but research has begun on these and is showing that they often have beneficial effects (or less negative effects) when compared to their meat counterparts.”

Studies like this one are a reminder that we often have a degree of control over our health outcomes, and by replacing some of our red meat consumption with plant-based substitutes we may be able to mitigate our risk of type 2 diabetes.

Ultimately, Heald says this study reinforces the importance of making dietary choices that prioritize plant-based protein sources over red meat for both the potential prevention of type 2 diabetes and overall health.