It is always a big factor, eating. Be it in our daily life or for specific fitness and health goals. Considering protein is the building block of our bodies, it is only reasonable that we make sure we have enough of it in our system so that our bodies function properly. This micronutrient is doubly—to say the least—important for those with diabetes.
Because excess body fat impacts our metabolism in a negative way, producing more glucose than the typical diabetic people could deal with, weight management has been an important aspect of managing the health of diabetics. Protein facilitates weight loss. It creates a prolonged sense of satiety after a meal and decreases appetite, studies have shown. However, not all proteins are created equal. For people struggling with diabetes, this is especially the case.
Lamb, along with pork and beef, has been a favorite in the culinary world and the world of foodies: people love cooking it, and they love even more eating it. In this article, however, we are putting lamb under the microscope and through the lens of diabetes. Is lamb safe for diabetes?
When meat is mentioned, protein is inevitably on our minds. Lamb is no exception, and with the connotation of a fancy dining, too. Lamb meat is actually quite nutritious, with 25 grams of protein in a 100 grams, providing also 5% of vitamin B6 and magnesium daily values. It has zero sugars and very little sodium.
It’s all looking good until we get to the fat section of its profile. In just 100 grams of serving, lamb provides 9 grams, or 45% daily value, of saturated fat.
Lamb and heart
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US, ranking #1 in 2019, as well as 2020. And it is one of the most common concurrent conditions with diabetes. In other words, foods that are dangerous to the heart are also dangerous to people with diabetes or at risk for developing it.
Experts have long known that fatty foods, specifically those high in saturated fat, lead to spiked cholesterol levels, which is a culprit for heart diseases.
As mentioned, and here again emphasized, lamb has mainly saturated fat—as much as 45% of recommended daily values. It may look like not much, leaving plenty of room before the threshold is reached, but most foods contain saturated fat, so with a regular consumption of red meat like lamb, it is easy to go overboard. In the long term, this spells elevated risk for heart disease.
But is there any evidence linking red meats like lamb more directly to our subject of the post—diabetes?
Red meat and diabetes
In an earlier study from 2017, researchers found that consuming red meat more regularly were linked to an elevated risk for developing diabetes.
Echoing this study, a more recent study, from 2020, provided more nuance in the matter of red meat and diabetes. Specifically, the researchers found that, compared to other protein sources, such as poultry and fish, red meat consumption of 50 grams per day elevated risk for developing diabetes by 11% at the end of their study period.
By now, it may seem obvious to make the conclusion that all red meats are bad for our overall health and especially for diabetes, and be done with all of them. But in reality, the truth is often in the grey area and is not so clear-cut.
Is lamb special among red meats?
Although lamb has saturated fat, it also contains parallel amounts of monounsaturated fat. The latter has been found to be healthier and better for our overall health, but particularly health of the heart. That said, lamb’s saturated fat has been found to be higher than both beef tallow and pork lard.
On the other hand, in the leaner parts of lamb, this aromatic meat contains a chemical called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA contents in lamb has been found the highest among the common animal meats.
CLA has been found in research to possess a lot of health benefits, including lowering the total mass of fat in obese people. Considering obesity is yet another condition commonly found together with the diagnosis of diabetes, this seemingly suggests lamb may have some benefits in store for diabetics.
But the same study also found that if taken in large amounts, CLA could in turn have some adverse effects on the metabolic system. Further confounding the already murky issue of lamb consumption and health, a study in 2013 found that taurine, a compound in which lamb meat is rich, may have protective effects against coronary heart disease.
In summary, it looks like lamb meat itself could be a better source of protein compared to other red meats such as beef and pork because of its containing health-promoting substances such as taurine, CLA, along with other minerals and vitamins commonly found in meats. But the fat of lamb should be best avoided for its high levels of saturated fat, despite the fact that it also contains comparable monounsaturated and small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
There are of course some myths and anecdotes out there claiming that diets with a focus on lamb consumption are better for your health, but they are not necessarily thorough and rigorously thought out.
Some of the organizations out there claim that certain diets around the world that have a much higher consumption of lamb have been connected with lower risks for both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. However, what is neglected to be mentioned is from whereabouts these reported diets originate. A tally on the Helgi Library show that the countries with the highest consumption of lamb include Mongolia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greece.
With the possible exception of New Zealand, the other three regions have drastically different cultures and environments from the US. New Zealand diet itself has been ranked 11th healthiest diet in the world, actually falling behind US at the 6th. These polls may be biased inherently and the original report about lamb consumption and health outcomes in heart disease and diabetes may have simply omitted certain countries.
As for the other countries whose consumption of lamb was found to be the highest in the world, their lifestyle and environment are nothing close to those in the US.
Mongolians live on the vast prairies with harsh cold days in a high altitude where your body would expend more energy than usual. Because its lifestyle is closer to a village than to a city, when considering health outcomes, such crucial elements as stress cannot be emitted. Similar arguments can be applied to Iceland.
As for Greece, its diet features a Mediterranean diet. Even though its consumption of lamb may be high compared to other countries, the bar is not very high to begin with, and Mediterranean diet features protein sources like chickpeas, cheeses, poultry, and fish, and is one of the recommended diets by the doctor for diabetic patients.
In short, it is not enough to say that diets that have traditionally consumed more lamb than other cultures prove that lamb is beneficial for the health of the heart and people with diabetes. The entire structure of the said diets have to be taken into consideration.
Finally, since lamb fat, after all, should best be avoided, what are some tips for eating lamb in a diabetes-conscious way?
How to eat lamb, and conclusion
Because of the minerals and vitamins and other compounds in lamb meat, it is potentially a healthier source of protein compared to beef and pork. Indeed, in a study done in 2012, researchers found that red lean meat from lamb improved the lipid (fat) profile in the blood just the same as white meats like chicken and fish.
One way to make sure you are getting the maximum benefits out of lamb while reducing the risk to as low as possible is to always ask for a lean cut of meat from a butcher. There are plenty of ways to keep a lean slab of lamb flavourful and salivating.
Mustard is a best friend of lamb meat and has been shown to be a beneficial ingredient for diabetics. And almost all spices are a perfect match for lamb, but especially chilli and cumin—the combined aroma is heavenly.
And lastly, without fat, as long as you keep the fire fierce and sear your meat properly and never cook the lamb for too long, its pink interior will still be nice and moist. To help seal in the moisture, you can drizzle some heart- and diabetes-friendly olive oil after you take it off the grill. Or, roasting the lamb on its own rack is always a good idea to keep it moist, provided that you ask to trim off the fat cap for the sake of your health.
In conclusion, lamb may be overall a better choice of carnivorous protein and, as mentioned, is very compatible with such healthy eating structures as the Mediterranean diet, which as we have written about, is a great diet to follow if your have diabetes. But lamb is after all a red meat, so make sure your run it through your doctor before committing to a nice lean rack.