Nitrites in food additives have been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, particularly when people eat a lot of red meat and processed meat.
Nitrites are added to processed meat to improve flavor and extend shelf life. Need another reason to reduce your red and processed meat consumption? A new study suggests that a common additive called nitrites in these foods is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
For this study, researchers examined the eating habits of more than 104,000 adults with an average age of 43 and without type 2 diabetes. Based on detailed dietary records, the scientists calculated people’s exposure to nitrates and nitrites, natural chemicals found in whole foods such as leafy green vegetables and in additives used to improve the flavor and shelf life of processed meat and other food products en masse.
The participants were followed for about seven years, and nearly 1,000 of them developed type 2 diabetes. People whose diets contained the most nitrites from food additives were 53% more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than participants whose diets contained the most contained the lowest amounts of meat and processed foods, researchers reported Jan. 17 in PLoS Medicine. Exposure to naturally occurring nitrites in green leafy vegetables and other whole foods was also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but the effect was much weaker.
Processed meat is the most common source of added nitrites
Looking closely at the participants’ diets, the scientists found that processed meats such as ham and sausages were by far the top source of nitrite-containing food additives, followed by convenience foods containing processed meat. Together, these food types accounted for 76% of nitrites from food additives.
To reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, people should eat a variety of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, especially fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, and avoid foods that may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes , e.g. E.g. processed foods meat, soft drinks and ultra-processed foods in general.
Type 2 diabetes develops when the pancreas is no longer able to produce or effectively use the hormone insulin to convert the sugar in our food into energy. The study wasn’t intended to prove whether or how nitrites can directly cause type 2 diabetes, but scientists do know that nitrites ingested in the diet can damage the pancreatic cells responsible for producing insulin.
Green leafy vegetables are always part of a healthy diet
It’s possible that the study found a lower risk associated with nitrites in healthy foods like green leafy vegetables, since people who eat this diet have healthier overall diets than those who eat lots of meat, red and processed meat. Vegetables are also high in nutrients, such as antioxidants, that protect against diabetes.
Plant-based diets can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes.
These findings add to a growing body of research, detailed in a January 2020 article in Diabetes Care, linking red meat and processed meat to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, less so for those on a more plant-based diet. Getting enough exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption can also help minimize risk.