Regular meat consumption was linked to a higher risk for several health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in a new study published in the journal BMC Medicine.
Researchers looked at data from 474,985 adults who enrolled in the UK Biobank (a large general research study) between 2006 and 2010, and were followed for an average of eight years. Participants completed a food questionnaire when they started the study, and data on hospital admissions and deaths among participants was made available. Some participants (about 69,000) also completed at least three more food questionnaires throughout the study, responding to questions online about what they had eaten in the previous 24 hours.
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The researchers found that participants who reported consuming meat — red meat, poultry or processed meat — regularly (three times a week or more) were more likely to have a number of different health conditions, out of 25 common conditions the researchers looked at (which did not include cancer). Most of these increased risks, though, could be explained by a higher body-mass index (a measure of body weight that takes height into account) in participants who ate meat, so the researchers adjusted for participants’ BMI to calculate an adjusted risk ratio for each health condition.
Link between meat consumption and certain health conditions
After adjusting for BMI and other differences between regular meat eaters and the other participants, the researchers found that increased risks for certain health conditions still remained. For every 70 grams of red or processed meat participants ate each day, on average, they were 30% more likely to have diabetes, 15% more likely to have ischemic heart disease (caused by narrowed arteries), 31% more likely to have pneumonia, and 10% more likely to have colon polyps (a risk factor for colon cancer). Similar results for these health conditions were seen when looking at red meat and processed meat separately. For every 30 grams of poultry participants ate each day, on average, they were 14% more likely to have diabetes, 17% more likely to have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), 12% more likely to have gastritis or duodenitis (stomach or intestinal inflammation), and 11% more likely to have gallbladder disease.
There was a benefit seen from eating red meat or poultry, but not processed meat: a lower risk for iron deficiency anemia (IDA). For every 50 grams of red meat eaten daily, participants were 20% less likely to have IDA, while for every 30 grams of poultry, they were 17% less likely to have IDA. No other health benefits were seen from eating red meat or poultry (or processed meat).
The researchers noted that even though they tried to correct for the effects of being overweight or obese, “some of the associations remaining after adjusting for BMI or waist circumference may still be due to other aspects of adiposity.” In other words, it’s possible that being overweight increased the risks of certain health conditions in ways the researchers couldn’t correct for.
Additional research is needed, the researchers wrote, to evaluate whether meat consumption is actually responsible for the increased risks seen in the study — something that could be measured only by using a randomized controlled study design, in which some participants are assigned to eat meat while other are assigned not to eat meat. Such a study could also help determine how reducing meat consumption might reduce the risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease and pneumonia.
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