Bad Medicine

Hotdogs, Cold Cuts Significantly Increase Diabetes Risk

hamburger on grill
Substituting nuts and other foods for a daily serving of meat could actually decrease a person's risk of diabetes. (Image credit: Pam Roth/stock.xchng)

Just in time to spoil your summer cookouts: Processed red meats such as hotdogs and cold cuts, the same things that make you fat and give you heart disease, may also increase your risk of diabetes.

And while that might not sound too surprising — something you might file in the "oh well, everything I like is bad for me" category — the degree to which processed meats are associated with diabetes is shockingly high, according to researchers at Harvard School of Public Health.

Just a daily serving of 50 grams — that's about two slices of cold cuts or one hot dog — is associated with more than a 50-percent increase in the risk of developing diabetes.

This analysis, appearing Aug. 10 online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is based on data from three major studies encompassing more than 200,000 adults, some of whom have been followed for nearly 30 years.

And, oh yeah, unprocessed red meats such as ground beef and pork also raise your diabetes risk, the researchers said, but not to the same degree. [7 Foods Your Heart Will Hate]

The one bit of good news here is that meat eaters can switch to many other foods that lower the risk of diabetes, the researcher found.

Black day for red meat

Diabetes, hardly known a century ago, is now pandemic and affects more than 10 percent of U.S. adults, or about 25 million people. Diabetes is closely associated with obesity, and the incidence of both of these chronic diseases has risen in near parallel in recent years.

Doctors have identified many dietary factors associated with diabetes. These include simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, and sweetened drinks and foods. Red meat's contribution to diabetes has been debated for several decades.

The new Harvard study, led by An Pan, a Harvard research fellow, focused particularly on red meat. Pan's group confirmed numerous earlier studies showing a link between processed red meats and diabetes. The reason might be the nitrites and nitrates often used to preserve this meat. These chemicals convert to nitrosamines in the stomach, which are toxic to pancreatic cells and increase the risk of diabetes in animals, the researchers said.

This 50-percent increase in diabetes risk applies to anyone, either slim or fat, warned Pan. Being overweight or not exercising incurs yet additional risks.

Toss another shrimp, or almond, on the barbie

The Harvard researchers also found that a daily 100-gram serving of unprocessed red meat, about the size of a deck of cards, was associated with a 19-percent increased risk of diabetes. The role of unprocessed red meat has not been so apparent in earlier studies.

There's a part 2 to the Harvard study, though. The researchers found that, for a meat eater, replacing one daily serving of red meat (processed or unprocessed) with a serving of nuts per day was associated with a 21-percent lower risk of diabetes; substituting low-fat dairy, a 17-percent lower risk; and substituting whole grains, a 23-percent lower risk.

This implies that a whole-grain bun might be the perfect complement to a hotdog, if you remained so compelled to eat one. Reinventing your diet might be wiser in the long run, though.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.