Beef and diabetes – untangling the science of diabetes and red meat

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Diabetes is on the rise in Canada

Diabetes is a serious chronic disease characterized by high blood glucose (sugar) that affects many Canadians. In 2023, 1 in 10 people in Canada were living with diagnosed diabetes and rates continue to climb according to Diabetes Canada.1

The percent of the population affected also increases markedly as people age. By 2020-2021, more than 1 in 4 seniors (27%) aged 65 years and over were living with diagnosed diabetes.3

Importantly, undiagnosed diabetes and pre-diabetes affect even more Canadians. According to Diabetes Canada, when both diagnosed and undiagnosed cases are accounted for, 30% of people in Canada live with diabetes or prediabetes.1 This includes type 1 and type 2 diabetes. By 2033, it is projected that 1 in 3 people in Canada (33%) will be living with diabetes or prediabetes (diagnosed or undiagnosed).1 Prediabetes increases the risk of developing diabetes.

Among adults in Canada, it has been estimated that about 90% of diabetes cases are type 2, 9% are type 1, and less than 1% are another type.2 In children and youth, most cases are type 1 diabetes, but type 2 diabetes is on the rise. In fact, a nation-wide study published in 2023 found a 60% rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in children under 18 years over a decade.4,5

Understanding the role of diet in diabetes

Diet plays an important role in regulating blood sugar and in preventing and managing diabetes. Paying close attention to the amounts and kinds of carbohydrates consumed is a key dietary strategy to help manage diabetes. This is fundamental since carbohydrates are broken down into sugars when digested, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. Blood sugars that are not well managed increase the risk of developing a range of other health complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and damage to the nerves, eyes, and kidneys. It’s good to know that unprocessed meat is naturally free of carbohydrates and primarily made up of protein along with some fat.

Snapshot on red meat and the Canadian diet

It’s worth noting that while the prevalence of diabetes has been steadily increasing in Canada, red meat intakes have not. The latest national data show that Canadians generally eat a moderate amount of red meat such as beef, pork, and lamb.6

While eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of diabetes and complications such as heart disease and stroke, Canadians generally do not eat a very healthy diet. In fact, Canadians are the second largest buyers of ultra-processed foods and drinks in the world, accounting for 47% of calories consumed on average.7 And Heart and Stroke Foundation research shows that Canadian adults who eat the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods have 37% higher odds of developing diabetes, 31% higher odds of obesity, and 60% higher odds of high blood pressure.7

Our diets have shifted over the decades, from a more wholesome nutrient-rich diet to a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor diet. Cutting back on any single food is unlikely to correct this. Instead, Health Canada and Diabetes Canada encourage Canadians to eat a healthy balance of nutritious whole foods including vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and protein foods, including beef.8,9

Research indicates red meat can fit into diabetes-friendly diets 

You may have heard mixed messages relating to red meat and diabetes, some positive and some negative. It’s important to know studies that have reported associations between red meat consumption and increased diabetes risk have generally been observational in nature.

Observational studies that explore associations between specific foods or dietary patterns and health conditions regularly generate conflicting findings. Observational studies try to find associations between dietary intakes and health measures. These often lead to media headlines causing confusion about food. However, nutrition scientists know that observed associations do not prove causation. The challenge with such population studies is trying to isolate one type of food or dietary pattern from the many other factors or habits they may be associated with.

While observational studies on red meat and diabetes have reported mixed findings, several more rigorous reviews of the available science suggest there’s no reason to replace red meat. In fact, research suggests that eating a moderate amount of red meat within the context of a balanced diet has no adverse effect on blood sugar control, blood lipids, or blood pressure.10 This evidence supports that when people eat a balanced diet, substitution of red meat with plant sources of protein would not further improve diabetes or heart health risk factors.

Here are some important studies that have examined the place of red meat in relation to diabetes risk, finding that unprocessed red meat fits within a diabetes-friendly diet:

  1. Two recent meta-analyses (statistical analyses of results from many studies on a topic) looked at dietary trials exploring red meat consumption and markers of diabetes in adults.11,12 Meta-analyses like these that examine the findings from randomized controlled trials are the gold standard in terms of evidence. Randomized controlled trials are controlled experiments that can help us understand if dietary intakes are impacting health. It’s important to note that both of the following meta-analyses looked at randomized controlled trials that included mainly unprocessed red meat.
    • A recent meta-analysis of 21 diet trials looked at the effects of red meat on blood markers of diabetes in adults.11 Researchers concluded that red meat had no adverse effect on a wide range of blood makers for type 2 diabetes, such as fasting blood glucose, HbA1c, fasting insulin and insulin sensitivity, as compared to diets with less or no red meat.
    • Another meta-analysis of 20 randomized controlled trials explored the effects of diets with red meat on markers of blood glucose control and inflammation in adults at risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.12 This meta-analysis concluded that red meat had no adverse effect on blood sugar control or Based on their analyses researchers also found there was no benefit of replacing red meat with other animal- or plant-based proteins such as poultry or soy.
  1. A recent Burden of Proof study evaluated all of the evidence from observational studies of unprocessed red meat and 6 common health conditions.13 Using rigorous burden of proof methodology, this meta-analysis concluded there is weak to no evidence of association between unprocessed red meat and type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, or the two main types of stroke.
  1. Another expert panel also concluded there is little to no health benefits for reducing red meat based on a series of 5 high-quality reviews on red meat and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.14 They estimated that adults in North America and Europe eat red meat and processed meat about 3 to 4 times a week on average. Based on their findings, they recommended that most people can continue to eat red meat at current average intakes.
  2. Researchers have also compared the effects of eating red meat, soy bean, and other legumes on heart health risk factors in adults with type 2 diabetes.10 Participants in this randomized controlled trial ate a balanced diet designed to maintain their weight. They were assigned to 3 different groups: (1) red meat, (2) soy bean, (3) non-soy legumes. Researchers concluded that compared to soy bean or non-soy legumes, eating a moderate amount of unprocessed red meat (i.e., 337 g/week) had no adverse effect on a range of heart health risk factors including fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin, HbA1C, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure in adults with type 2 diabetes.

The bottom line

All of these studies suggest that eating a moderate amount of unprocessed red meat does not increase the risk of diabetes. Since Canadians are already eating a moderate amount of unprocessed red meat on average, this research does not support a need to decrease intakes.

Beef is an excellent source of protein that provides a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals.15 It’s a good choice to fill the protein portion of your plate.

To learn more about healthy eating from Diabetes Canada, read Just the Basics.

Feb 2024

References
  1. Diabetes Canada. 2023. Diabetes in Canada – 2023 Backgrounder.
  2. Public Health Agency of Canada. 2017. Diabetes in Canada.
  3. Public Health Agency of Canada. 2023. Snapshot of diabetes in Canada, 2023.
  4. Patel TJ et al. Incidence trends of type 2 diabetes mellitus, medication-induced diabetes, and monogenic diabetes in Canadian children, then (2006–2008) and now (2017–2019). Pediatric Diabetes, 2023;5511049.
  5. University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. 2023. Communication update: 60% increase in type 2 diabetes (T2D) among Canadian children.
  6. Hassanzadeh-RostamiZ et al. Moderate consumption of red meat, compared to soy or non-soy legume, has no adverse effect on cardio-metabolic factors in patients with type 2 diabetes. Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes 2021;129(6):429-437.
  7. Sanders LM, Wilcox ML and Maki KC. Red meat consumption and risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur J Clin Nutr 2023;77(2):156-165.
  8. O’Connor LE et al. Effects of total red meat intake on glycemic control and inflammatory biomarkers: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Adv Nutr 2021;12:115-127.
  1. Lescinsky H et al. Health effects associated with consumption of unprocessed red meat: A Burden of Proof study. Nat Med 2022;28:2075–2082.
  2. Johnston BC et al. Unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption: dietary guideline recommendations from the Nutritional Recommendations (NutriRECS) Consortium. Ann Intern Med 2019; 171:756-764.
  1. Statistics Canada. 2018. Customized analysis of 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey – Nutrition data.
  2. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. 2019. News release: Simpler is better when it comes to healthy eating.
  3. Health Canada. 2019. Canada’s Food Guide.
  4. Diabetes Canada. 2018. Just the Basics.
  5. Health Canada. 2015. Canadian Nutrient File. Nutrient values per 100 g for Food Code Beef 6172 (composite cuts, steak/roast, lean and fat, cooked).
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