Beware of the Burger: Eating More Meat Linked to Blood Sugar Imbalances and Liver Disease

By Kim Holland, Healthline
April 15, 2018 11:30 am Last Updated: April 15, 2018 11:40 am
 Despite the popularity of the Meatless Monday campaign and the buzz around “bleeding” veggie burgers, meat consumption continues to rise in the United States. In fact, this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the average person will consume 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry, the most since 2004.
However, as Americans eat more animal protein than ever before, researchers in Israel suggest in a new study that the increased meat consumption may lead to chronic conditions that had not been reported previously.

Specifically, the study, published in the Journal of Hepatology, suggests high consumption of red and processed meats, including sausage and hot dogs, may lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance.

Previous studies have connected high consumption of red meat and processed meat with several other chronic conditions, including cancerType 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The new study is the first to connect the popular protein choices with these metabolic conditions.

High consumption of red and processed meats, including sausage and hot dogs, may lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance.

“Unhealthy Western lifestyle plays a major role in the development progression of NAFLD, namely, lack of physical activity and high consumption of fructose and saturated fat,” Shira Zelber-Sagi, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “Our study looked at other common foods in the Western diet, namely red and processed meats, to determine whether they increase the risk for NAFLD.”

Zelber-Sagi and her colleagues recruited 357 people between the ages of 40 and 70 for their study. Each participant underwent several screenings and studies, including a colonoscopy. Participants were also asked to keep a food diary to measure meat consumption details.
At the end of the two-year study, 38.7 percent of participants were diagnosed with NAFLD, and 30.5 percent were diagnosed with insulin resistance.
The food journals revealed that in general, people ate more white meat than red meat.

The ratio of red meat consumption to white meat was one-third to two-thirds, which means that even when red meat isn’t the majority of meat consumption, a person is still at risk.

Is There Still a Place for Meat on the Plate?

Despite her researchers’ findings, Zelber-Sagi says there are still good reasons to eat meat, including red meat.

“We should remember that meat contributes valuable nutrients that are beneficial to our health, including protein, iron, zinc, and B12 vitamins,” Zelber-Sagi told Healthline. “Fish are even more beneficial due to its omega-3 fatty acids content, which has anti-inflammatory effects. Poultry consumption was not related with NAFLD or insulin resistance. Thus, meat can be part of the diet.”

 But dietician Wendy Kaplan says to be wary of processed meats.

“Recommendations put forth by the American Institute for Cancer Research for red and processed meat differ,” she says. “There is an established threshold for red meat of no more than 18 ounces cooked per week. However, unlike red meat, a recommended limit of processed meat does not exist, since even small amounts increase your risk for certain types of cancer.”

Max Lugavere, brain health expert and author of the book “Genius Foods,” encourages people to think about their diet more holistically.

That’s a sentiment Jennifer Kaplan also shares. Kaplan, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California, believes the quality of the meat makes the greatest impact in the food’s overall healthful qualities.

“Most of the confusion about the benefits and risks of red meat are the result of an industrial meat system gone awry,” Kaplan said. “Approximately 97 percent of America’s beef cattle are grain-fed, which means corn-fed.”

Cows are ruminants and not able to digest corn, Kaplan explained. Yet the cows are fed a diet of corn, as well as liquefied fat, protein supplements, vitamins, antibiotics, and straw or hay.

“In contrast, grass-fed beef is considered to be a healthier red meat because grass feeding cows typically results in a leaner meat, or meat with a lower total fat content and a more healthful fatty acid profile,” she adds.

A person’s overall dietary pattern matters more to their health than any one meal.
— Max Lugavere, author, brain health expert

Indeed, a 2017 review in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that red meat consumption does not significantly increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.

Instead, the report found the presence of visible fat and the use of preservatives in the meat linked red meat consumption with increased cardiovascular risk.

How you cook your food may be just as important as the meat you pick, Zelber-Sagi and her colleagues reported in the study. They recommend you adopt healthier cooking techniques and avoid over frying or grilling your meat.

The study revealed that people who cooked meat with the unhealthiest methods had a higher chance of being diagnosed with insulin resistance.

Paleo and Keto Diets

Ultra-low-carb diets are swiftly gaining popularity. Quite different from traditional Western diets, these diets eliminate almost all sources of carbs, including many vegetables and fruits. Instead, they rely heavily on animal protein and low-carb foods, such as dairy.

But, Zelber-Sagi says, the rules still apply: Eat meat in moderation, and select high-quality meat.

“We can generally say that the results of our study do not contradict the assumption that low-carbohydrate diets help to improve insulin resistance and NAFLD,” Zelber-Sagi said. “We emphasize that a low-carbohydrate diet by itself may not be good enough to prevent insulin resistance, and that healthy protein selection should be emphasized.

“In other words, it is not necessarily enough to keep on [a] low-carbohydrate diet. One should also choose healthy meat sources, like chicken or turkey, and healthy cooking methods.”

Kim Holland is a freelance writer. This article was originally published on Healthline.com