Red meat is linked to several health issues, including type 2 diabetes. Do I need to worry about eating it?

Photo illustration of a cow with health conditions written on it: cancer, heart disease, stroke, infection, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.
Experts suggest cutting back on red meat. Here's why. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Red meat consumption has been slowly declining — and that may be a good thing, according to some experts.

Total red meat and poultry production were expected to decline to 106.9 billion pounds — its first drop since 2014, according to data presented in the 2023 U.S. Livestock and Poultry Outlook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural Economic Insights reported that the average American consumed more than 59 pounds of beef in 2022 — a huge dip from the 1970s, when people were eating approximately 86 pounds of meat each year.

However, the typical American consumed about 40% more of the recommended amounts of meat (as well as eggs and nuts) in 2018, according to current statistics provided by the USDA’s Food Availability and Consumption.

And now with new research indicating more potential health risks of eating meat, is it necessary to limit — or even eliminate — the amount of beef on your plate? Experts weigh in.

What's happening?

Numerous studies over the years have found a link between beef and multiple chronic conditions. More recently, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that consuming two servings of red meat per week may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes — and more than two weekly servings was associated with an even higher risk.

The authors from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also reported that substituting plant-based proteins, such as beans and nuts, for meat was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Other research suggests that red meat impacts heart health. Investigators at the American Heart Association in 2022 discovered chemicals produced in the gut after consuming red meat explained a “significant portion” behind an elevated risk of heart disease. A meta-analysis from 2021 found that both red meat and processed meat were associated with higher risks of various types of cancer, including breast, colon and lung. Also, the findings from a large-scale study involving more than 1.4 million people and conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford indicate that higher intakes of beef (50 grams or more per day) increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 9%, while consuming more processed meat doubled the risk.

And then there’s the possibility of getting sick to your stomach (literally) since ground beef has been associated with large outbreaks of foodborne illnesses — and they’re only becoming more common. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that Salmonella outbreaks linked to ground beef just since 2016 have been responsible for as many illnesses and more hospitalizations than all of the beef-related Salmonella outbreaks that had occurred during the previous 36 years.

Do I need to worry?

As for the latest research about red meat consumption and type 2 diabetes, this isn’t news to experts. “I don’t find these results too surprising as diets high in saturated fat have been found to increase the risk of insulin resistance, which can increase type 2 diabetes occurrence,” Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian nutritionist, a certified diabetes educator and author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet, tells Yahoo Life.

Yet she quickly points out that meat may not be the culprit — or at least not the only culprit. “These results are an association, not a causation, which means that many other factors can also impact diabetes risk,” notes Palinski-Wade. “For instance, an increased intake of red meat can mean an increased intake of ultra-processed foods and high-fat animal meats, along with possibly a reduced intake of dietary fiber — all of which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.”

Lisa Young, registered dietitian nutritionist, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, agrees and tells Yahoo Life it can be difficult to isolate one particular food and its effects on the body when conducting nutritional research.

“I tend to think it’s more about dietary patterns,” she explains. “Maybe people who eat more red meat are also eating more white buns, more ketchup, more french fries — and these foods are not being disclosed on the questionnaires, which can be problematic. But it’s conveying the fact that the health risks of red meat are not just heart disease, but also diabetes, and these conditions tend to fall together.”

What can I do about it?

If you’re concerned about your blood sugar readings and cardiovascular health and looking to reduce your red meat intake, Young suggests beginning by limiting the number of beef-centered meals per week, followed by adjusting the portions on your plate. “For example, make meat one-quarter of your dish, while making the mainstay of your plate produce and healthy starches,” she says.

Young adds: “Start focusing on other foods you can add to your plate instead of only focusing on the foods you are going to take out.”

Palinski-Wade agrees. “Make an effort to add more fiber to your diet by incorporating more plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts and seeds,” she states. “Also, consider increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables by adding ½ cup to 1 cup more than you typically consume until you can build up to five to seven servings per day.”

Furthermore, Palinski-Wade advises selecting leaner cuts of red meat over higher-fat cuts. “For instance,” she says, “choose sirloin over prime rib. When possible, opt for grass-fed beef over grain fed, which has a more favorable fatty acid profile.”

In order to help keep yourself — and anyone consuming your home-cooked meals — safe from foodborne illnesses, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages investing in a food thermometer. Beef (as well as bison, veal, goat and lamb) in the form of steaks, roasts and chops must be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 145℉ (followed by a rest time of three minutes before cutting and consuming), while ground beef and sausage should hit 160℉. Also, keeping cooked or ready-to-eat foods away from raw meat, including using separate plates and utensils, will further reduce the risk of contamination, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

The main takeaway

Saying goodbye forever to burgers and steak may not be necessary after all. “I think the biggest takeaway is that it doesn’t mean you can never, ever have meat again,” says Young. “People have this black-and-white attitude, an all-or-nothing mentality. If someone has 3 to 4 ounces of red meat once a week, I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s more about dietary practices.”

Palinski-Wade says it’s best to think about red meat, as well as all fattier animal proteins, as a less frequent protein choice. “Having red meat once each week while incorporating leaner proteins — such as fish, white-meat poultry and a variety of plant-based options — can help you to incorporate all the foods you love without as great of a risk on overall health.”