Need another reason to cut back on red and processed meats? A new study suggests that a common additive called nitrite in these foods is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
For the study, researchers looked at the dietary habits of more than 104,000 adults who were on average 43 years old and had no history of type 2 diabetes. Based on detailed dietary records, the scientists calculated how much people were exposed to nitrates and nitrites, chemicals that occur naturally in whole foods such as green leafy vegetables, and in additives used to improve the flavor and shelf life of processed meats and other mass-produced foods. .
Participants were followed up for about seven years and nearly 1,000 of them developed type 2 diabetes.
People with the most nitrites in their diets from food additives were 53 percent more likely to get a type 2 diabetes diagnosis than participants whose diets contained the smallest amounts of meat and processed foods, researchers they reported on January 17 at PLoS medicine. Exposure to naturally occurring nitrites in leafy green vegetables and other whole foods was also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but the effect was much smaller.
Processed meats are the most common source of added nitrites
When the scientists scrutinized the participants’ diets, they found that processed meats such as ham and sausage were by far the largest source of nitrite-containing food additives, followed by ready meals containing processed meats. Combined, these food types accounted for 76 percent of nitrates from food additives.
“To reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, people should eat a variety of unprocessed and minimally processed foods — especially fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains — and avoid foods that may increase their risk of type 2 diabetes. 2, such as processed meats, soft drinks and ultra-processed foods in general,” says Priscila Machado, PhD, a researcher at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition in Australia, who was not involved in the study.
Type 2 diabetes develops when the pancreas is no longer able to make or use the hormone insulin effectively to convert the sugars in our food into energy. The study wasn’t designed to show whether or how nitrites could directly cause type 2 diabetes, but scientists know that nitrites consumed from food can damage cells in the pancreas responsible for making insulin, says the senior author of the study. study, Mathilde Touvier, PhD, a researcher at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research and Sorbonne Paris Nord University in France.
Leafy greens are still part of a healthy diet
It’s possible that the study found a lower risk associated with nitrites in healthy foods like green leafy vegetables because people who eat green vegetables consume an overall healthier diet than people who eat a lot of red and processed meat. There are also many nutrients in vegetables, such as antioxidants, that protect against diabetes, Dr. Machado says.
Heavily processed meats with lots of nitrite-containing food additives may be linked to diabetes in part because they’re part of a generally unhealthy diet, says Gunter Kuhnle, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of Reading in the UK who was not involved in the new study.
“In the study, people with high nitrite intakes also had other dietary patterns that may be linked to diabetes, such as high sugar intake,” says Dr. Kuhnle.
Plant-based diets can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes
One limitation of the analysis is that the scientists relied on people to accurately remember and report on all the foods they ate. Additionally, the researchers did not objectively measure nitrate or nitrite exposure by testing foods. Instead, they estimated exposure based on the expected amount in different foods people said they consumed.
However, the findings add to a growing body of research, described in a January 2020 article in Diabetes carelinking red and processed meat to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, with a lower risk for those eating a more plant-based diet.
Getting plenty of exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, abstaining from smoking and limiting alcohol consumption can also help minimize your risk, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.