An important caveat: Don't take this research as a sign to eliminate all nitrites and nitrates from your diet, though. We're explaining why …
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While genetics play a major role in our overall health outcomes, study after study proves that what we eat and drink can move the needle to either spike or slash our risk for a wide variety of chronic diseases. Case in point: Foods and beverages from wine to coffee to whole grains have all been shown to potentially reduce risk for type 2 diabetes.

A new study published January 17 in PLOS Medicine discusses another element that's in our food, drink and our environment that might play a role in diabetes rates as well; people who consume more nitrates and nitrites may be at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Read on to learn more about this study that proved an association (not causation—important to note!), where nitrates and nitrites can be found, plus how to translate this research. Considering the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 4 in 10 American adults already qualify as having prediabetes, a precursor to type 2, it's wise to study up.

What This Diabetes Study Found

For this research, scientists tapped into data from the web-based NutriNet-Sante project, which started in 2009. They analyzed self-reported responses related to medical history, diet, lifestyle and other important health updates for 104,168 participants aged 15 and older. Specifically for this report, they looked at total nitrite and nitrate exposure based on each individual's self-reported diet data. They found that people who tended to consume more foods with nitrites and nitrates were more likely to receive a type 2 diabetes diagnosis down the line.

So where are nitrites and nitrates found, exactly? These inorganic plant nutrients occur naturally in soil and water, per a 2020 study in Nutrition Today, as well as in a wide variety of vegetables. Leafy greens, beets and root vegetables are all natural sources. Nitrites and nitrates are also added to certain foods to help extend their shelf lives and inhibit bacterial growth. Processed meats such as ham, bacon, deli meat and hot dogs are all sources of added sodium and potassium nitrates.

As you might have guessed from that list, not all nitrites and nitrates are something that you should avoid. In fact, we need them! Bacteria and enzymes in our bodies break down nitrates, turning that into nitrites that then become nitric oxide. This chemical plays a vital role in our heart health, blood pressure and blood vessels. Nitric oxide has been proven to be essential for some metabolic and cardiovascular functions. The Institute of Food Technologists confirms that naturally occurring nitrates in veggies are responsible for about 85% of our total consumption, and those nitrates are nothing to fear or steer clear of.

Still, since some studies link nitrates and nitrites with colon, kidney and stomach cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute—and this new study suggests that participants who consumed more nitrates and nitrites appeared to be at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes—it's probably best to limit added nitrates in our diets. Some European countries are getting a head-start on this mission. France and the United Kingdom, for example, have considered banning or reducing nitrates and nitrites in processed meats.

The Bottom Line

This new study suggests that participants who consumed more nitrates and nitrites appeared to be at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. However, this does not prove any sort of causation, and there are a lot of details TBD. For example, how much nitrites and nitrates might be harmful? Or what if the vast majority of our consumption comes from water and plant foods that naturally contain nitrates? Plus, the aforementioned Nutrition Today analysis says that vitamin C and flavonol consumption (which are both also found naturally in fruits and vegetables) may be able to mitigate the harmful effects of nitrite and nitrate consumption. More studies are needed to determine the ideal dose, the best and worst sources and the alternative ways we might be able to ameliorate risk.

We need some nitrates in our systems to support heart and metabolic health, and there are far more benefits to consuming plant foods that contain nitrates than there are drawbacks. Our complete list of the best foods to eat when you have diabetes (or are at risk for it) is jam-packed with produce picks, by the way!

There are some risks to noshing on copious amounts of cold cuts, though, so if you want to limit your exposure to added nitrates, that's a good place to start. Check the label of your bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs and other processed meats and look for "sodium nitrate" or "potassium nitrate."