People who are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes are often told to eat a balanced diet, and to cut back on refined carbohydrates and sugars.

But could meat — which naturally doesn’t contain carbs — also come with an increased risk?

Researchers have established a link between eating certain kinds of meat —and even meats cooked in specific ways — with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

Keep reading to find out more about what the research says regarding eating meat and diabetes risks.

In 2018, a study published in the journal Diabetes Care identified a potential link between the consumption of meat using open-flame and high-temperature methods, and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

The authors found that study participants were more likely to receive a diabetes diagnosis if they ate red meat or chicken cooked over an open flame or using high heat.

Examples of these cooking methods include:

  • barbecuing
  • broiling
  • grilling
  • roasting

The researchers didn’t find a consumption amount that reduced risk — all levels of meat consumption cooked at high heat increased a person’s risk.

Why does the preparation matter?

Meats cooked in this fashion have high levels of heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These are formed when components found in meats (like proteins and sugars) react with high temperatures. Well-done meats have the highest HCA levels.

Researchers have also linked these and other compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to increased risks for cancer in animal studies, according to the National Cancer Institute.

However, it’s important to know researchers haven’t established a link between PAHs and cancer in humans.

What types of meat?

A 2015 review of studies on a similar topic identified a stronger connection between processed red meats and diabetes risk. Examples of processed meats include sausages, cold cuts, and meats cured with salt.

While researchers are still identifying links between meat and diabetes risk, a common thought is that the higher levels of saturated fats and calories found in meat products are connected.

Compared to many fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains, meat has greater amounts of calories and fats.

Eating a diet high in meat also has been shown to increase the amount of visceral or abdominal fat. Doctors associate higher levels of abdominal fat with greater risks for diabetes.

Because doctors have linked obesity and being overweight with an increased risk for diabetes, it’s possible the saturated fat found in meats, especially red meats, could contribute to diabetes risk.

Researchers have identified several causes of diabetes. Many times, a person gets diabetes not because of one reason, but several. The main cause-related categories include:

  • Having obesity: Excess weight, especially in the abdominal area, can contribute to insulin resistance. When the body can’t use insulin as effectively to process blood sugar, a person’s blood sugar levels can get too high, resulting in type 2 diabetes. It’s important to note that not everyone who has obesity will develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Physical inactivity: A lack of physical activity is associated with an increased risk for having obesity. These two factors can go hand-in-hand and contribute to insulin resistance.
  • Family history: If you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you’re at greater risk for the condition, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • Medical conditions: Doctors associate diabetes with certain medical conditions, particularly those that affect hormone levels. These can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. Examples include Cushing’s syndrome, acromegaly, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
  • Medications: Taking certain medications can increase your risk for diabetes. However, there’s no medication guaranteed to give you diabetes if you take it — they may just increase your risk. Never stop taking a medication without checking with your doctor first. Examples include:
    • psychiatric drugs
    • anti-seizure medications
    • glucocorticoids
    • anti-rejection medications
    • statin drugs

While there may be four major categories of potential diabetes causes, there are several lifestyle factors that can play into each condition.

If you’re concerned about your diabetes risks, talk to your doctor about how your individual factors may impact you.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) doesn’t make recommendations to completely eliminate meat — or any type of food, for that matter — for people with diabetes.

In their 2021 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, the ADA recommends eating lean sources of protein, which may include lean meats.

Also, a 2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition didn’t establish a connection between meat consumption and higher levels of blood glucose or insulin in those who already had type 2 diabetes.

How to choose your meat

Those with diabetes don’t have to cut out meat entirely, but it’s likely a good idea to choose meat sources wisely. Here are some good ways to do just that:

  • Choose lean cuts of beef whenever possible. Examples include:
    • round steaks and roasts
    • top loin
    • top sirloin
    • chuck shoulders
    • arm roasts
  • Purchase lean ground beef that’s ideally 90 percent lean (or more).
  • Opt for leaner pork choice options, such as pork loin or tenderloin.
  • Purchase meats labeled “lean” or “select,” which can mean they’re lower in fat.
  • Remove the skin from chicken or turkey before cooking.
  • Limit lunch meat, and choose lean cuts of turkey, ham, or roast beef over higher-fat options, such as salami or bologna, if you’re opting to have it.

In addition to focusing on meat types you purchase, prepare your meats using cooking methods like baking, roasting, or stir-frying, compared to flame-grilling.

While there are some risk factors beyond your control, such as family history, type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by making lifestyle adjustments. Some of the ways you can prevent type 2 diabetes include:

  • Maintaining a moderate weight. If you’re a person who is overweight, losing even 5 percent of your weight can help reduce your risks for prediabetes.
  • Eating a balanced diet. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Choosing lean proteins. These include fish, chicken, turkey, and non-meat sources such as eggs, tofu, and yogurt.
  • Engaging in regular physical activity. This might include walking, jogging, or taking an exercise class.

If you aren’t sure where to start, talk to your doctor.

Type 2 diabetes symptoms can be slow and subtle. Some people don’t have them at all. Sometimes, you may not recognize them until your condition is more advanced. Talk to your doctor if you experience the following potential diabetes symptoms:

  • blurry vision
  • increased thirst
  • increased urination
  • numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
  • sudden, unexplained weight loss
  • unexplained fatigue
  • unexplained hunger increases
  • wounds that heal slowly or not at all

Going to regular checkups and physical exams can also help your doctor identify risk factors for diabetes or elevated blood sugar levels before symptoms occur.

Researchers have made connections between meat consumption and increased risks for diabetes. Eating meat doesn’t mean you’ll get diabetes, just as refraining from eating meat doesn’t mean you’ll never get diabetes.

However, meat consumption is a known risk factor, just as having obesity and a family history of diabetes are risk factors.

If you’re concerned about your diabetes risk factors, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to lower your risk.