Meat-lovers beware: Eating more red meat, poultry can raise diabetes risk

Meat at a butcher shop in Godewaersvelde on Oct 28, 2015. A study found that people with a higher intake of red meat were 23 per cent more likely to get diabetes, compared with those who eat little of it.
Meat at a butcher shop in Godewaersvelde on Oct 28, 2015. A study found that people with a higher intake of red meat were 23 per cent more likely to get diabetes, compared with those who eat little of it.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - A diet with plenty of red meat and poultry is linked to a higher risk of diabetes among Singapore Chinese, according to new findings.

Research from Duke-NUS Medical School released on Tuesday (Sept 5) found that people with a higher intake of red meat were 23 per cent more likely to get diabetes, compared with those who eat little of it.

Poultry-lovers were 15 per cent more likely to suffer from diabetes, a chronic ailment where blood sugar levels are abnormal, compared with those who have a low intake of these food products, which includes chicken meat.

The culprit is the dietary heme-iron content found in these meats. Red or dark meat, such as beef and pork, contains a relatively high amount of myoglobin protein, which carries heme-iron for binding oxygen. The more myoglobin there is, the darker the meat looks. Some parts of the chicken, such as the thigh, are also considered dark meat.

Heme-iron can accumulate in the pancreas and liver, causing oxidative stress. The substance also affects certain cells in the pancreas that are involved in the secretion of insulin, which regulates the body's blood sugar levels.

On the other hand, non-heme iron, which is found also in meat, as well as plant-based foods such as fruit and nuts, can be regulated by the body more easily.

The Duke-NUS study was carried out on 45,411 Singapore Chinese citizens and permanent residents aged between 45 and 74. They were recruited and tracked between 1993 and 2010 and were interviewed twice about their diet using a questionnaire that covered 165 food items, including 33 that had meat.

Professor Koh Woon Puay, who is from Duke-NUS Medical School and a senior author of the study, said cutting down one's intake of meat will be a good step to take.

"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, fish or shellfish, or plant-based protein food and dairy products, to reduce the risk of diabetes," she said.