Meat Consumption Associated with Diabetes Risk

Heme iron content and other chemicals may cause red meat to increase the risk of diabetes.

It is thought that a plant-based diet may be more effective preventing diabetes than a meat-based diet; however, not all meat has a similar impact on diabetes risk.

In a new study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, a high intake of red meat and poultry significantly increased the risk of diabetes largely due to the high content of heme iron.

These findings may provide the basis for shaping dietary recommendations to reduce the risk of diabetes and associated healthcare costs, according to the authors.

Included in the study were 63,257 adults aged 45 to 74 years participating in the Singapore Chinese Heath Study between 1993 and 1998. Patients were followed up with for an average of 11 years.

The authors noted a positive association between red meat and poultry consumption and diabetes risk. Patients with the highest intake of red meat and poultry had a 23% and 15% increased risk of diabetes, respectively, compared with those who had the lowest consumption, according to the study.

Notably, consumption of fish or shellfish did not impact the risk of diabetes. When red meat or poultry was substituted with fish or shellfish, the risk of diabetes was lessened, according to the study.

In an attempt to determine the association between meat intake and diabetes, the authors explored the content of dietary heme iron. They discovered a dose-dependent positive association between heme iron content and diabetes risk.

After adjusting for heme iron content, the link between red meat and diabetes was still evident, suggesting that other factors are involved, according to the study. However, the relationship between poultry and diabetes risk disappeared, which suggests that heme iron was the cause.

These findings are in line with other studies that show dietary heme iron content may increase the risk of diabetes, according to the authors. This study also showed that the risk of red meat may be attributable to chemicals other than heme iron.

The authors note that consuming chicken with lower heme iron content—such as breast meat—may be healthier. Furthermore, substituting fish or shellfish for red meat and poultry may improve health and reduce diabetes risk, according to the study.

"We don't need to remove meat from the diet entirely. Singaporeans just need to reduce the daily intake, especially for red meat, and choose chicken breast and fish/shellfish, or plant-based protein food and dairy products, to reduce the risk of diabetes,” said senior study author Woon-Puay Koh, PhD. “At the end of the day, we want to provide the public with information to make evidence-based choices in picking the healthier food to reduce disease risk."

While these findings were based on individuals from Singapore, it is likely that Americans would benefit from adhering to dietary guidelines that advise limiting meat intake, especially red and processed meats, as they have been thought to cause cancer.

"Although a number of western studies have consistently shown that red meat consumption should be moderated, this study is highly relevant as it is based on local population and consumption patterns,” said said Dr Annie Ling, director, Policy, Research and Surveillance Division, Health Promotion Board (HPB). “The findings affirm HPB’s recommendation to consume red meat in moderation, and that a healthy and balanced diet should contain sufficient and varied protein sources, including healthier alternatives to red meat such as fish, tofu and legumes.”