Study: Red Meat and Poultry Increase Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Chances are, you know by now that red meat isn’t doing your health any favors, but a new study discovered that eating poultry also increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, used data from The Singapore Chinese Health Study, which followed adults between ages 45 and 74 for an average of 11 years. 63,257 adults initially participated in the study, which tracked how dietary and environmental factors impacted participants’ health. The study launched in 1993, and in 2005 there were still 32,543 people participating.

To determine whether type 2 diabetes risk is linked to food choices, researchers looked at the diets of participants diagnosed with the disease. Both diet and illness were self-reported in this study.


Researchers point to the type of iron found in red meat and poultry—heme iron—that’s one of the culprits. Higher heme iron intake was associated with higher incidence of type 2 diabetes. They also suspect that there were other compounds in red meat contributing to type 2 diabetes risk.

The issue, according to the research researchers, is total heme iron intake. Both red meat and poultry contribute heme iron to the diet, and reducing the total amount of heme iron seemed to nullify poultry’s effects.

This isn’t the first study to associate heme iron and type 2 diabetes. A 2013 meta-analysis also pointed to heme iron as a risk factor. Dr. Michael Greger explains that heme iron, “can lead to free radicals and iron-induced oxidative stress that may lead to chronic inflammation and type 2 diabetes”

This is especially interesting, because for so long, vegetarians and vegans have been hearing that the non-heme iron found in plant foods is subpar. Yet the potential risks associated with heme iron are far less well-known.


The Singapore Chinese Health Study data looks specifically at Asian populations, and it’s one of the largest of its kind. Most studies looking at meat and health come out of the west.

In a press release about the study, Dr Annie Ling, Director, Policy, Research and Surveillance Division, Health Promotion Board said, “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. The findings affirm [the Health Promotion Board’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.”

Of course, if you eat a lot of meat and poultry now, replacing it with healthier foods might seem daunting. You may be worried about getting enough iron or protein. Ginny Messina, R.D. has a great primer on vegan iron—where and how to get it and when supplementing may be right for you.

If you’re concerned that cutting out red meat and poultry is going to leave you protein deficient, don’t panic! Almost all plant foods contain some protein. This Care2 article has information on daily protein needs, plus a list of 25 plant-foods that are good sources of protein.


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