Red meat can be a delicious addition to any meal. However, medical experts warn against its regular consumption, stating that red meat can increase your risk of things like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. So how much is too much, or should you even eat it at all? This article will discuss the implications of red meat in your diet, specifically about diabetes.

The importance of diet and protein

When learning to live with diabetes, it is incredibly important to consider diet. Diet is a key pillar to diabetes management, as it can have significant effects on your blood sugar levels. When approaching diet, look at your meals to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrients, vitamins, and food groups. A well-balanced plate, for example, will typically contain one-quarter of carbohydrates, one-quarter of proteins, and one-half of vegetables. Even with a well-balanced meal with these portions, the overall “health” of your plate will depend on the foods you select. For example, certain types of carbohydrates and proteins are better and more nutritionally dense than others.

To explore this idea, let’s focus on one food group: protein. Protein represents an essential macronutrient to the body, supporting hair, muscle, skin, and bones. It is also found in enzymes that execute critical biological processes. Likewise, there are a minimum of 10,000 different types of proteins that are found in the body. We get protein through our diet, but people oftentimes do not get enough. The National Academy of Medicine suggests that adults get in roughly seven grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. As an example, this would mean that a 160-pound individual would require a minimum of 50 grams of protein daily. This typically translates to between 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories.

It is important to note though that not all protein is created the same. Even if you are meeting your protein requirements, you want to ensure that you are eating high-quality proteins. For example, four ounces of broiled sirloin steak amounts to 33 grams of protein, which is accompanied by five grams of saturated fat. Several studies have found that saturated fat is harmful to your health, potentially affecting things like cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. On the contrary, another protein source like four ounces of sockeye salmon translates to 30 grams of protein with a little over 1,500 mg of saturated fat. Thus, when comparing the two protein sources, salmon would typically be considered the “healthier” option.

Other things to consider when looking at your protein sources are sodium and fiber. You want to keep your sodium intake low and fiber intake high. That being said, you can still enjoy all your favorite types of meats and proteins but keep some in moderation. One such protein you need to look out for, though, is red meat.

The nutritional profile of red meat

Red meat is a form of protein that includes things like beef, pork, lamb, goat, veal, and venison. Red meat can contain beneficial substances such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins. In fact, meat is a primary source of vitamin B12 that we get from our meals. That being said, there are some health risks associated with red meat consumption. Red meat can contain harmful substances such as saturated fat, nitrites, carcinogens, and heme iron. As a result, some evidence exists that eating red meat regularly can increase one’s risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or premature death.

The controversy surrounding red meat diets

To further explore the controversy surrounding red meat and its effect on our health, let’s review the research. While red meat has historically been considered an “unhealthier” protein source, one study provided conflicting evidence. In five systemic reviews evaluating the impact of red and processed meat on certain diseases, investigators found that red and processed meat was not harmful. The conclusion of this study was that it is unnecessary to limit red and processed meat consumption to improve health.

While these results seemed promising, the medical and scientific community have criticized these findings and the study itself. According to Dr. Frank Hu, the study design was inappropriate for assessing a nutritional topic. Additionally, other studies evaluating this same question have found that red meat is harmful. In a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), investigators concluded that eating red meat increases one’s risk of death, specifically due to cardiovascular issues and cancer.

This study followed well over 100,000 individuals for as much as 28 years without cancer or cardiovascular disease at baseline and assessed their diets. The results indicated that a single serving of unprocessed red meat increased one’s risk of death by 13 percent, and a single serving of processed meat (e.g., hot dog or bacon) increased one’s risk of death by 20 percent. Many of these deaths were due to cancer or cardiovascular conditions. Likewise, this research suggests that routine red meat intake can cause premature death.

What about red meat and diabetes?

So, we’ve discussed how red meat may impact cardiovascular health and cancer, but what about diabetes? Another recent Harvard study aimed to answer this question, studying over 200,000 patients for as many as 36 years. Results showed that twice-weekly servings of red meat increased one’s risk for diabetes compared to those that ate fewer servings. Individuals who ate the most red meat had a 62 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes versus those who ate the least red meat. A 46 percent and 24 percent increased risk of diabetes were associated with each additional serving of processed red meat and unprocessed red meat, respectively.

What you can do about red meat consumption

Whether or not you currently have diabetes, limiting or avoiding red meat in your diet can be beneficial to your overall health. In fact, the American Diabetes Association recommends decreasing red and processed meat intake due to their higher saturated fat and salt content.

If you are a lover of red meat and have it as an integral part of your diet, cutting it out can be a daunting task. However, there are several ways that you can lower your intake.

Red meat alternatives

One of the best ways to cut out red meat but maintain your protein intake is to switch it out for healthier protein options. These can include foods such as fish, seafood, turkey, chicken, eggs, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. These foods are more advantageous for your health as they are more nutritionally dense and lack the bad stuff. In replacing just one serving of red meat a day with these alternatives, studies show you can decrease your risk of death by up to 19 percent.

The role of portion control

Just because you are limiting your red meat intake does not mean you have to eliminate it. If you just love your red meat and do not want to let it go, try limiting the number of servings that you have each week. Limit your intake to three or fewer portions a week

Choose high-quality meats

The quality and production of your meat matter. If you do choose to consume red meat, ensure that you are avoiding processed meats. Processed meats include foods like sausages, ham, bacon, and salami. These are processed using salting, smoking, fermentation, and curing methods to enhance taste and make them last longer. Though they may taste yummy, they are not good for you. Remember from the previously mentioned studies that it’s not just red meats that increase the risk of death but also processed meats.

Lifestyle factors for diabetes prevention

In addition to implementing a healthy diet and reducing your red meat intake, another great way to lower your diabetes risk or manage your diabetes is through lifestyle changes. The below lifestyle changes can help improve your overall health.

  • Routine physical activity. Working out in some capacity for 30 minutes a day for at least five days a week can help you to lose between five and 10 percent of your overall body weight, decreasing your risk of diabetes. If you have existing diabetes, exercise can help you to manage diabetes and prevent further complications. Physical activity should include some form of aerobic exercise, which can include things like brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling.
  • Keeping a healthy weight. When you are overweight or obese, diabetes management can be more difficult. You can lose weight by implementing proper diet, exercise, and medication if needed.
  • Stopping smoking. Smoking cigarettes is a leading cause of death in the US, yet it is preventable. Smoking also increases your risk of diabetes by 30 to 40 percent, affecting your blood sugar and causing damage to your nerves, heart, and kidneys. Additionally, smoking increases blood pressure, decreases “good” cholesterol, and increases blood clots.


In summary, red meat can have harmful effects on your health, contributing to things like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular conditions. If you are a lover of red meat, consider switching it out for healthier protein sources, limiting your portions, and going for high-quality meats when you do choose to eat it.

Key Takeaways

  1. Regular consumption of red meat has been linked to increased risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, prompting experts to recommend moderation.
  2. Not all proteins are equal; the type of protein consumed can have a significant impact on health. For example, salmon is a healthier protein choice compared to red meat due to its lower saturated fat content.
  3. Studies on red meat’s health impact are mixed, with some suggesting no harm and others indicating a higher risk of mortality, particularly from cancer and heart disease.
  4. Frequent red meat consumption, especially processed varieties, has been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  5. Replacing red meat with other protein sources like fish, poultry, and plant-based options can lead to a healthier diet and potentially reduce the risk of premature death by up to 19%.