If you want to lower your risk for type 2 diabetes, you may be better off cutting into a steak than grilling sausages for dinner. Research shows that processed meat bumps up your risk of diabetes more than red meat. In fact, in some U.S. studies, for each serving of processed meat that was consumed, there was a 53 percent increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Consumption of red meat, however, was not found to increase the risk of diabetes. 

Processed meat is not exactly a nutritional bargain anyway, according to the same research. Per 50-gram serving, which amounts to a little under two ounces, of processed meat contains more calories and less protein than the same amount of red meat. Additionally, processed meats contain less iron than red meat.

Processed and red meats have a similar saturated fat content, according to the study. This could be because some of the processed meats contain pork and/or lower-cholesterol deli meats. One big nutritional difference: processed meats have lots more sodium than red meat, and they contain more "nonsalt" preservatives such as nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines.

"Processed meats are not what people should be reaching for," says Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BE-ADM. "But when people cut back on carbs, they potentially eat more processed meat."

If you love cold cuts, bacon, sausages and hot dogs, at least go for the varieties with the least amount of processing, Warshaw recommends. That means choosing oven-roasted turkey at the deli for sandwiches and passing up the salami, and opting for the brands of cold cuts marked "less sodium" and "less fat." The best choice would be to roast your own turkey and slice off pieces for a sandwich.

Besides monitoring the salt and fat content of processed meat,  watch portion size, says Amy Fischl, RD, of the Kovler Diabetes Center at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "If you are consuming regular bacon and eating seven slices at a time, cut back to two or three," she suggests. ""Just having processed meat occasionally is not an issue. It's not good when someone is eating it constantly and in large volume."

Bottom Line

If you love your processed meat, treat yourself occasionally. And make some easy substitutions along the way: lettuce and tomato on a ham sandwich, an egg white omelet next to the turkey bacon, and maybe a turkey frankfurter rather than a beef one.


Renata Micha, Sarah K. Wallace and Dariush Mozaffarian, "Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke and Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." Circulation: Journal of the Ameircan Heart Association. Published online May 17, 2010.