Relatively small lifestyle modifications related to weight reduction, physical activity and diet have been shown to decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. Connected with diet, low consumption of meat has been suggested as a protective factor of diabetes. The aim of the present study was to examine the association between the consumption of total meat or the specific types of meats and the risk of type 2 diabetes. The Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention cohort included middle-aged male smokers. Up to 12 years of follow-up, 1098 incident cases of diabetes were diagnosed from 24 845 participants through the nationwide register. Food consumption was assessed by a validated FFQ. In the age- and intervention group-adjusted model, high total meat consumption was a risk factor of type 2 diabetes (relative risk (RR) 1·50, 95 % CI 1·23, 1·82, highest v. lowest quintile). The result was similar after adjustment for environmental factors and foods related to diabetes and meat consumption. The RR of type 2 diabetes was 1·37 for processed meat (95 % CI 1·11, 1·71) in the multivariate model. The results were explained more by intakes of Na than by intakes of SFA, protein, cholesterol, haeme Fe, Mg and nitrate, and were not modified by obesity. No association was found between red meat, poultry and the risk of type 2 diabetes. In conclusion, reduction of the consumption of processed meat may help prevent the global epidemic of type 2 diabetes. It seems like Na of processed meat may explain the association.