Study: Processed Meat and Refined Carbs May Be Contributing to Increase in Type 2 Diabetes

  • New research points to processed meat and refined carbs as increasing individuals' risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • This is due to additional inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction often initiated by processed meat and refined carbs.
  • Experts recommend focusing on a whole food diet, which will naturally shift focus to foods high in fiber and protein.

A new study points to processed meat and refined carbs as having an impact on type 2 diabetes risk for many individuals.

Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest-growing global health conditions and remains a significant public health concern. 537 million adults are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes around the world. This statistic does not account for the many individuals with undiagnosed diabetes. Prevalence is higher in low and middle-income countries with 3 in 4 adults with type 2 diabetes.

When left uncontrolled, diabetes can result in debilitating complications including heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and a high risk of infection. Studies suggest that diabetes can be alleviated with access to proper healthcare management, education, and diet.

There is no doubt that diet plays a major role in the management of type 2 diabetes. “Often people don’t realize that it’s not just the intake of sweets, pastries, candies, and chocolate that need to be limited, it’s also carbohydrates that break down into sugars in your body,” Debbie Goodman, MD, a primary care doctor with a clinical focus in diabetes at Mount Sinai told Health.

New research has indicated that excessive intake of processed meat and refined rice and wheat has the greatest impact on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study also noted that inadequate intake of whole grains contributed to diabetes risk.

Woman at butcher counter
Getty Images / kzenon.

How Type 2 Diabetes Works

Diabetes is a metabolic condition that affects the way in which your body converts food to energy.

The food we eat, specifically carbohydrates, is broken down into sugar and released into the bloodstream. The hormone insulin, which is secreted by your pancreas, facilitates the movement of sugar from your bloodstream into cells to be used as energy.

In type 2 diabetes, which affects 90–95% of people with diabetes, your cells stop responding to insulin, and too much sugar stays in your bloodstream. This also causes the pancreas to make more insulin. As the pancreas secretes more and more insulin, you can become insulin resistant, which is when cells in your muscle, fat, and liver don’t respond well to the insulin and can no longer easily move the sugar from the blood into cells. If this is not managed over time, it can lead to serious health consequences.

The good news is there are many ways to manage, as well as prevent, diabetes through diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Managing Blood Sugar for Type 2 Diabetes

A key aspect of avoiding type 2 diabetes is managing blood sugar.

The foods we eat influence how our blood sugar responds. Certain foods help to keep blood sugars stable while others cause steep spikes in blood sugar levels. Research shows that large portion sizes, sedentary lifestyles, and increased intake of high-sugar beverages have increased dramatically, further contributing to higher rates of diabetes.   

So what does a diabetes prevention diet look like? An eating pattern that is high in fish, poultry, lean meats, whole grains, legumes, and a variety of fruits and vegetables is correlated with better blood glucose control and decreased risk of metabolic diseases. Some individuals improve blood glucose and regulate blood lipid levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.

A diet high in a variety of proteins, fruits, and vegetables is also rich in many nutrients essential for overall health and chronic disease prevention.

Processed Meat and Refined Grains

No one food is going to make or break your diet. That said, research shows there are certain foods to limit for the best health outcomes.

One such food is processed or refined rice and wheat grains. These foods are not in a “whole food” category because the outer parts of the grain have been removed. This process decreases the protein, fiber, and B vitamins naturally found in the whole grain.

Research is clear on the fact that a diet higher in non-processed grains, or whole grains, is more effective in controlling blood sugar levels and preventing type 2 diabetes. The fiber in whole grains slows down the digestion process and prevents high blood sugar spikes. Whole grains also have heart health benefits, decreasing total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which are risk factors for diabetes. 

Further, processed meat should also be a food to watch if you’re at risk for type 2 diabetes.

Processed meat is any meat that has been modified or preserved through smoking, curing, salting, or the addition of chemical preservatives. Research shows that additives could contribute to the development of metabolic diseases by producing inflammation in the body. Globally, dietary patterns have transitioned to eating more processed foods, including meats and refined grains.

Public health research finds that the incidence of type 2 diabetes is correlated with excess processed meat intake.

“Processed meats and refined grains contribute to inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction that lead to impaired insulin signaling in fat cells, lipid accumulation in muscle, and fat deposit in the liver,” endocrinologist John N. Falcone, MD, told Health.

It is these changes that can lead to insulin resistance, which in turn accounts for metabolic shifts, elevated fasting glucose levels, and glucose spikes after consuming carbohydrates—all of which play a role in type 2 diabetes.

Reducing Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Before cleaning out your pantry of refined grains and processed meats, there are small steps you can take to improve your diet and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes.

“Consuming a balanced diet that is rich in dietary fiber, plant protein, unsaturated fats, antioxidants, low glycemic index patterns, and low in saturated fats, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars can be very helpful in preventing the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Falcone suggested.

Try thinking about foods you can add to your diet, rather than subtract. Include an extra vegetable at dinner or fruit with your afternoon snack. Throw canned chickpeas into a salad for extra fiber and protein. Make an effort to add fish to your dinner rotation 1–2 times a week.

After you have added nutritious foods to your diet, try making some simple swaps. Switch out a refined grain like white rice or pasta for a whole grain such as quinoa, farro, or whole wheat pasta. Include oatmeal or whole grain cereal in your breakfast instead of a refined version. And try fresh chicken or turkey on sandwiches instead of deli turkey or ham.

“We know that family history plays a very strong role in the development of type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Falcone noted, “but environmental factors, such as dietary habits and exercise, can be pivotal in overcoming the genetic predisposition towards insulin resistance.”

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