Nitrites in food additives are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, especially when people eat a lot of red meat and processed meat.
Nitrites are added to processed meats to improve flavor and extend shelf life. Need another reason to cut back on your red and processed meat intake? A new study suggests that a common additive called nitrites in these foods is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
For this study, the researchers examined the eating habits of more than 104,000 adults with an average age of 43 and no history of type 2 diabetes. Based on detailed dietary records, the researchers calculated how much people are exposed to nitrates and nitrites, naturally occurring chemicals. found in whole foods such as green leafy vegetables and in additives used to improve the flavor and shelf life of processed meats and other foods 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 least 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 meats are the most common source of added nitrites
By taking a closer look at the participants’ diets, the researchers found that processed meats such as ham and sausages were by far the biggest source of nitrite-containing food additives, followed by ready meals containing processed meats. 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, such as processed meats, 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 sugars in our food into energy. The study was not designed to prove whether or how nitrites can directly cause type 2 diabetes, but researchers do know that nitrites consumed in food can damage pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production.
Leafy vegetables are always part of a healthy diet
It is possible that the study found a lower risk associated with nitrites in healthy foods such as green leafy vegetables because people who eat this way have a generally healthier diet than those who eat a lot of meat, red and processed meat. Vegetables also contain many nutrients, such as antioxidants that protect against diabetes.
A plant-based diet can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes.
These findings add to a growing body of research, described in a January 2020 article in Diabetes Care, linking red meat and processed meat to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Less for people on a more plant-based diet. Getting plenty of exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption can also help minimize the risk.