How Processed Meat and Refined Carbs Can Increase Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

According to a recent study published in Nature Medicine, eating large amounts of processed meats as well as refined rice and wheat may be linked to the rising rates of type 2 diabetes worldwide.

In fact, the study examined almost three decades of data on how 11 different dietary factors in 184 countries influenced the risk of type 2 diabetes. In 2018, the final year of data, researchers estimated that 14.1 million cases of type 2 diabetes worldwide were attributable to poor eating habits. 

In the analysis, certain regions where diets tend to be rich in red and processed meat and potatoes, including Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, had the largest number of type 2 diabetes cases associated with dietary factors. Other regions, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, where diets tend to include high consumption of sugary drinks and processed meats, also had a higher proportion of type 2 diabetes. In contrast, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa had fewer cases of type 2 diabetes because their diets tend not to include many refined grains or processed meats. 

That is why the typical Western diet — rich in red meat, processed foods, fried foods, sweets, sugary drinks, and saturated fats — might increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

Refined rice and wheat are also typically found in processed foods and contain a high glycemic index, which raises blood sugar levels. Not to mention, processed meat contains additives and sodium, which could contribute to poor metabolic health by driving inflammation. And when foods with refined rice and wheat are consumed in excess, it can lead to insulin resistance.

For one thing, the lack of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other healthy compounds in these foods can increase inflammation in the body, contribute to obesity, and make it harder to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. On top of this, eating lots of these less healthy foods can crowd out other healthier options. 

As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of the main risk factors for type 2 diabetes are being overweight or obese, physically inactive, or over 45 years old. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body can’t make or use enough of the hormone insulin to help convert sugars in the foods we eat into energy, causing sugar to accumulate in the bloodstream instead.

The good news is even small changes to your diet can help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Some good options can include the following:

  • Replacing sugary cereals and breakfast foods with products made from whole grains
  • Subbing brown rice in place of refined white rice
  • Opting for plant-based proteins like beans, soy, and nuts instead of red and processed meats
  • Filling your plate with lots of whole fruits and vegetables
  • Consuming lean sources of protein (non-red meat)

Over time, these small changes can lead to more energy, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, weight loss, and other improvements to your health. As Heller had advised, “The results do not happen overnight… You just have to stick with it and do the best you can to maintain small changes over time.”


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