Q: I know sausage and hot dogs are linked with colon cancer risk. Is it true that they’re linked with risk of diabetes, too?
A: Yes, several large population studies now link greater consumption of processed meats with increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Processed meats are those that are salted, cured or smoked, or contain preservatives (such as nitrite- or nitrate-based products). Common examples of processed meat in the United States are bacon, sausage, hot dogs, canned meats and ham. Risk of type 2 diabetes increases with overweight, so processed meats that are high in calories could explain part of the link to diabetes risk. However, even after adjusting for weight and some other aspects of eating habits, people who consume the most processed meat show from 20 to over 60 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least. That translates to about a 20 to 30 percent increase in risk for each 2-ounce daily serving, equal to about one regular hot dog.
Researchers say that nitrosamine compounds that form within our gut from nitrite-based preservatives may not only increase cancer risk, they may also damage the cells of the pancreas responsible for producing insulin. Many processed meats are high in saturated fat, which is linked with development of insulin resistance, meaning insulin is less effective in controlling blood sugar. Another potential explanation for the diabetes link involves formation of compounds called Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs) that happens during processing and in home or restaurant cooking. AGEs seem to increase low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress and may promote insulin resistance, all together producing a metabolic environment that can lead to type 2 diabetes. At some point, research may clarify whether certain types of processed meats – like those made from chicken or with lower fat – pose less risk than others. For now, however, because processed meats are linked with colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, avoiding them (or saving them for special occasions) really does make sense.