A follow up of three Harvard studies indicates that eating more red meat over time is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but red meat might not deserve all the blame.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine and reported by Diabetes in Control, analyzed data from three Harvard group studies and followed up thousands of men and women by assessing their diets using food frequency questionnaires.

This study found that participants who increased consumption of red meat by 0.5 or more servings a day over the course of four years had a 48 percent higher risk of developing diabetes in the four-year interval. Participants who reduced consumption of red meat by 0.5 servings or more over the four years had a 14 percent lower risk of developing diabetes during the follow up period.

What’s the harm?

Red meat generally has a high amount of saturated fat, which is known to increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and other health conditions such as diabetes. But the risks don’t stop there, according to Harvard Magazine.

Three components of red meat, sodium, nitrites, and iron, are also probably responsible for its harmful effects. Iron occurs naturally in red meat while sodium, nitrites, and nitrates are found in processed meats. Sodium is well known to increase blood pressure, but it also causes insulin resistance; nitrites and nitrates have also been shown to increase insulin resistance and to impair the function of the pancreatic beta cells. Iron can cause beta-cell damage and systemic, chronic inflammation in some people, Harvard Magazine notes.

Livestrong also states that animal protein, fat, and iron are associated with oxidative stress and insulin resistance. Joslin Diabetes Center recommends that you have no more than four ounces of lean red meat, three times per week.

Susan B. Sloane is a registered pharmacist, certified diabetes educator, and patient advocate. She says that red meat is dense in calories, so it is not the best food to eat if you want to lose weight.

“Red meat is more difficult to digest than other foods,” she added. “That’s one of the reasons that eating a lot of red meat may take a toll on the body.”

No more red meat?

Despite the strong evidence, studies such as the Harvard follow up are unable to definitely say that red meat causes diabetes because there are too many variables. The format of the study has also raised questions about the validity of its findings.

“Epidemiological studies made by questionnaires are not accurate, and they never prove causation, no matter how big and how good the statistics are,” Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told WebMD.

Some say that red meat is getting too much unwarranted blame and that it is not unhealthier than some other common meats.

“Red meat is not the bad food that it is touted to be,” William Evans, head of the Muscle Metabolism Discovery Performance Unit at GlaxoSmithKline, also told WebMD. “There are many cuts of beef that are red and have as much fat as a chicken breast, and the redness in meat provides the most valuable form of iron from any food that we eat.”

So, you may not need to eliminate red meat from your diet but it is true that a balanced and sensible diet is important to managing, or preventing, diabetes.

“I think that we need to use some common sense here and realize that red meat can be part of a healthy diet plan when eaten in moderation,” Sloane said. “In reality, I can't afford steak every night, but when I go out to a special dinner, I just may order the prime rib.”

There is a general consensus that people in the United States could benefit from a reduction of meat, including red meat, in their diets. In 2012, the average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat and 54.1 pounds of poultry, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

If you do want to get away from red meat, you could get your protein from other sources such as chicken, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds. Regardless of the content of your diet, your intake of saturated fat should never exceed seven percent of your total calories, according to the American Diabetes Association as reported by Livestrong.

In the end, as with most things in life, it comes down to moderation. You should probably think about reducing, but not necessarily eliminating, red meat on your plate. You should also be aware of other sources of saturated fat such as cheese, whole milk, and other meats.

How much red meat is in your diet? Share your thoughts on red meat consumption below.