Can Processed Meat Increase Your Risk For Type 2 Diabetes?

Processed meats are easily found in the typical American diet, from the pepperonis on your pizza, the hot dog at a baseball game, or a ham sandwich from your favorite deli. As tasty as these foods can be, processed meats aren't very good for your health. Many processed meats are high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol and increases inflammation, according to Everyday Health. A 2021 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating just five ounces of processed meat a week increases your risk of cardiovascular disease by 46%. Processed meat can also increase your likelihood of developing dementia, according to a 2021 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

If these aren't reasons for you to give up your morning bacon, a 2023 study in Nature Medicine looked at how 11 dietary factors are linked to type 2 diabetes. A diet that falls short in whole grains but high in refined grains and (you guessed it) processed meats contributes the most to type 2 diabetes.

The link between processed meat and type 2 diabetes

Although it's known how the fiber in whole grains can regulate sugar while refined grains can increase blood sugar, the 2023 study in Nature Medicine couldn't explain why processed meat might be linked to type 2 diabetes. Because the study compared people's reports on their diets with whether or not they developed diabetes, it couldn't say that processed meats cause type 2 diabetes.

However, Everyday Health suggests that a diet that's heavy in processed meats might also be unhealthy overall. In other words, if you habitually indulge in processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, salami, and meat-lovers pizza, you are also more likely to choose foods high in sugars. These could contribute to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. But there might be something more.

Nitrites damage the cells in the pancreas. Your pancreas produces insulin to reduce your blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes can result if the cells in your pancreas are damaged (via Healthline).

Nitrates and nitrites are linked to type 2 diabetes and cancer

According to Eating Well, nitrates naturally occur in plants and help regulate your blood pressure. Yet sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used in processed meat to act as preservatives and to enhance the food's texture and flavor. When these nitrates mix with the amino acids in the meat, they become carcinogenic. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen because of its link to colorectal cancer.

Research has now pointed to these nitrates and nitrites to be another factor linking processed foods to type 2 diabetes. A 2023 study in PLOS Medicine looked specifically at these preservatives in different foods and found that people who consumed more foods with sodium nitrite were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. The majority of these foods were processed meats such as ham and sausage, but they also included ready-to-eat meals with processed meats and salted snacks with processed meats.