New Study Finds Link Between Processed Foods And Type 2 Diabetes
We can’t be the first ones to tell you the processed foods are bad for you. In fact, you’ve probably heard numerous times how red and processed meats tend to have a common additive, nitrates, which are added to food to enhance and extend both their flavor and their shelf life.
However, a new study shows that many of the nitrates found in these types of processed foods actually increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition often associated with many other difficult and adverse health conditions when left untreated.
For this particular study, researchers looked at the eating habits of over 104,000 adult participants that were at an average of 43 years in age with no history of type 2 diabetes. The scientists took their detailed dietary records and from there, calculated how much exposure they had to nitrates and nitrites, which are chemicals naturally found in many whole foods, such as green leafy vegetables and in additives, where are used to improve the shelf life and flavor of processed meats, as well as other mass-produced foods.
The participants were followed for around seven years, and over those seven years, almost 1,000 participants developed type 2 diabetes during that time.
According to the results of the research, which were released in the January 17 publication of PLoS Medicine, those with the most nitrites in their diets from food additives ‘were 53 percent more likely to get a type 2 diabetes diagnosis’ than those participants whose diets had the smallest amounts of processed foods and meats. Moreover, exposure to naturally found nitrites from leafy greens and other whole foods were also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, however the effect was much smaller.
Processed Meats: Most Common Source of Added Nitrites
During the research, the scientists took a close look at the participants’ diets. What they found was that processed meats, such as sausage and ham, were the biggest source of food additives containing nitrites, by far. Next in line was the ready-to-eat meals that contain processed meats. When combined, these types of foods ‘accounted for 76 percent of nitrates from food additives.’
A researcher at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University in Australia, Priscila Machado, PhD, said, “To reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, people should eat a variety of unprocessed and minimally processed foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains — and avoid foods that might increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, such as processed meats, soft drinks, and ultra-processed foods in general.” Notably, Machado was not involved in the study.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops over time, when the pancreas are unable to produce or use the hormone insulin effectively, unable to convert sugars from the food into energy for the body. Moreover, senior study author, Mathilde Touvier, PhD, who is also a researcher at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research and the Sorbonne Paris Nord University in France, explained that the study was not designed to prove how or if nitrites may directly cause type 2 diabetes. However, scientists note that some nitrites eaten from foods do cause damage to cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin.
Leafy Green Vegetables Still Part of a Healthy Diet
Although the study found less risk associated with nitrites in healthy foods, such as leafy green vegetables, it’s possible that it’s because people who eat this way are just healthier overall all, consuming a better diet than those who tend to eat diets higher in red and processed meats. Moreover, Dr. Machado also shares that there are tons of nutrients in vegetables, such as antioxidants, which can protect someone against diseases like diabetes.
In addition, nutrition professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, Gunter Kuhnle, PhD, explained that heavily processed meats that have lots of foods additives that have nitrites are also associated with diabetes partly because they are part of an unhealthy diet overall. Dr. Kuhnle said, “In the study, people with high nitrite intake also had other dietary patterns that could be linked with diabetes, such as a high intake of sugars.” Dr. Kuhnle was also not part of the study.
Link Between Plant-Based Diets and Lowered Risk of Chronic Diseases
One major limitation to the study analysis is that the scientists relied too much on the participant’s ability to recall and report on the foods that they ate. Also, the researchers were unable to objectively measure their exposure to nitrates and nitrites by testing foods. Rather, they took these estimates based on the expected amounts in these different foods according to what the people said they consumed.
However, the findings still add to the continuous and growing research, which was described in the January 2020 article of Diabetes Care, which links red and processed meats to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, this link has a lowered risk for those that eat a more plant-based diet.
Moreover, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares that ‘getting plenty of exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, abstaining from smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption can also help minimize the risk.’