Generally, a plant-based diet is considered healthier when compared to a meat-based diet in curbing diabetes. It is important to note, however, that diabetes risk varies with the types of meat – as discovered by scientists in a recent study.

Researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore found that people with a higher intake of red meat were 23% more likely to get diabetes, as compared with those who eat less of it.

Significant increase in diabetes risk discovered

The Singapore Chinese Health study investigated 63,257 adults aged 45 to 74 years recruited and tracked between 1993 and 2010. Participants were interviewed twice about their diet using a questionnaire that covered 165 food items, including 33 that had meat.

A positive association was found between those who consumed higher levels of certain types of meat and diabetes. Specifically, compared to those in the lowest quartile intake, those in the highest quartile intake of red meat and poultry had a 23% and 15% increase in risk of diabetes, respectively.

The risk of diabetes was not associated with a higher intake of fish or shellfish. Although, when these foods substituted red meat or poultry, the diabetes risk diminished.

To breakdown the underlying mechanism for the role of red meat and poultry in the development of diabetes, the research also explored the dietary heme-iron content and its association with diabetes. From this, they uncovered a dose-dependent positive association.

Even after adjusting for heme-iron content in the diet, the red meat and diabetes association was still present – suggesting an active role of other chemicals present in red meat attributing to the risk of diabetes. On the other hand, the link between poultry intake and diabetes risk became null – signifying that this risk was due to poultry’s heme-iron content.

HPB: Consume red meat in moderation

While findings of this research are consistent with other Western studies, this study additionally discovered the diabetes risk of red meat being associated with other possible chemicals, besides its heme-iron content. It also suggested that chicken parts, such as breast meat, with lower heme-iron contents could be healthier. Lastly, the study also exhibited the benefit of replacing red meat or poultry with fish/shellfish.

Professor Koh Woon Puay, Professor of Clinical Sciences at the school and senior author of the study said, “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.”

“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,” emphasised Prof Koh.

Dr Annie Ling, Director of Policy, Research and Surveillance Division, Health Promotion Board (HPB), further stressed on the relevance of this research, as it is based on local population and consumption patterns. “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,” she echoed. MIMS

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