How many ounces of food should I eat per meal?

Serving and Portion Sizes: How Much Should I Eat?

Eating a variety of foods from each food group will help you get the nutrients you need.

The Dietary Guidelines describes describe three USDA Food Patterns, each of which includes slight variations in amounts recommended from different food groups. For example, people 50 or older following the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern choose foods every day from the following:

  • Vegetables—2 to 3 cups
  • Fruits—1½ to 2 cups
  • Grains—5 to 8 ounces
  • Dairy —3 cups (fat-free or low-fat)
  • Protein foods—5 to 6½ ounces
  • Oils—5 to 7 teaspoons

Does this mean you have to measure or weigh everything you eat? Not really. Some people find it helps to measure things carefully at first, but once you get used to your new eating plan, strict measuring probably won’t be necessary. But, what exactly is a serving? And is that different from a portion?

A “serving size” is a standard amount of a food, such as a cup or an ounce. Serving sizes can help you when choosing foods and when comparing like items while shopping, but they are not recommendations for how much of a certain food to eat.

The term “portion” means how much of a food you are served or how much you eat. A portion size can vary from meal to meal. For example, at home you may serve yourself two small pancakes in one portion, but at a restaurant, you may get a large stack of pancakes as one portion. A portion size may also be bigger than a serving size. For example, the serving size on the Nutrition Facts label for your favorite cereal may be 1 cup, but you may pour yourself 1½ cups in a bowl.

Portion size can be a problem when eating out. To keep your portion sizes under control, try ordering one or two small appetizers instead of a large entrée. Or, you could share an entrée with a friend, or eat just half and ask for a take-out container for the rest. Put the leftovers in the fridge as soon as possible. Then enjoy them the next day for lunch or dinner.

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For More Information About Serving and Portion Sizes

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Content reviewed: April 29, 2019

Controlling Portion Sizes

As meals swell to “super-size,” so do American waistlines

It seems like everything these days is “super-sized.” Cutting back on sugar, fat, and calories can be as simple watching your portion sizes, especially of foods high in fat and sugar.

Eating smaller portions of food is one of the easiest ways to cut back on calories – but it can also be one of the most challenging, with the current trend of super-sizing. Huge portions, all-you-can-eat-buffets, and extra-large “single servings” of chips, candy bars, and other snack foods can all lead to overeating.

How do you know a reasonable portion of food when you see it? Visualize the objects mentioned below when eating out, planning a meal, or grabbing a snack. For example, the amount of meat recommended as part of a healthy meal is 3 to 4 ounces – it will look about the same size as a deck of cards.

The look of normal portion sizes

  • 1 oz. meat = size of a matchbox
  • 3 oz. meat = size of a deck of cards or bar of soap (the recommended portion for a meal)
  • 8 oz. meat = size of a thin paperback book
  • 1 medium potato = size of a computer mouse

Even some bagels have become super-sized, which gives this reasonably healthy breakfast item a high calorie count. Bakeries and grocery stores often carry jumbo bagels that measure 4¼ inches across and contain 300 to 400 calories each. A regular, 3-inch-diameter bagel has about 150 calories.

To eat smaller portions try the following ideas

When eating out

  • Look for plant-based entrees on the menu, like a veggie plate or a salad with lean protein, like chicken, tofu, or fish on top.
  • If you’re trying to eat healthy and watch your weight, it’s best to stay out of most traditional fast food outlets. But if you find yourself without another option, choose a regular single hamburger instead of the larger burger or the double burger. This will also help you limit your red meat intake. Or better yet, choose a grilled chicken sandwich if available.
  • Say ‘no’ to super-sizing. Instead, order the smallest size available. Drink water or unsweetened iced tea instead of soda.
  • Share an entrée with a friend when you go to a restaurant.
  • Ask for half your meal to be packed for you and eat it for lunch the next day.

At home

  • Don’t “eat from the bag.” When snacking, place a few chips, crackers, or cookies in a bowl to help keep from overeating.
  • Buy single portions of snack foods so you’re not tempted by the whole bag or box.
  • Like butter and sour cream on your baked potato? Mayonnaise and cheese on your sandwich? Cream cheese on your bagel? Use half the amount you usually do – and save even more calories by using low-fat varieties.

Boost servings of fruits and vegetables

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends at least 2½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day to help prevent cancer. Substitute low calorie, high-fiber fruits and vegetables for higher calorie foods and snacks – it will help you get the fruits and vegetables you need, feel full, and save on calories!

Serve sizes

What is a serve of vegetables?

A standard serve is about 75g (100–350kJ) or:

  • ½ cup cooked green or orange vegetables (for example, broccoli, spinach, carrots or pumpkin)
  • ½ cup cooked dried or canned beans, peas or lentils (preferably with no added salt)
  • 1 cup green leafy or raw salad vegetables
  • ½ cup sweet corn
  • ½ medium potato or other starchy vegetables (sweet potato, taro or cassava)
  • 1 medium tomato

What is a serve of fruit?

A standard serve is about 150g (350kJ) or:

  • 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear
  • 2 small apricots, kiwi fruits or plums
  • 1 cup diced or canned fruit (no added sugar)

Or only occasionally:

  • 125ml (½ cup) fruit juice (no added sugar)
  • 30g dried fruit (for example, 4 dried apricot halves, 1½ tablespoons of sultanas)

What is a serve of grain* (cereal) food?

A standard serve is (500kJ) or:

*Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties

How much is a serve of lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans?

A standard serve is (500–600kJ):

  • 65g cooked lean red meats such as beef, lamb, veal, pork, goat or kangaroo (about 90-100g raw)
  • 80g cooked lean poultry such as chicken or turkey (100g raw)
  • 100g cooked fish fillet (about 115g raw) or one small can of fish
  • 2 large (120g) eggs
  • 1 cup (150g) cooked or canned legumes/beans such as lentils, chick peas or split peas (preferably with no added salt)
  • 170g tofu
  • 30g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter or tahini or other nut or seed paste (no added salt)*

*Only to be used occasionally as a substitute for other foods in the group (note: this amount for nuts and seeds gives approximately the same amount of energy as the other foods in this group but will provide less protein, iron or zinc).

How much is a serve of milk*, yoghurt*, cheese* and/or alternatives?

A standard serve is (500–600kJ):

  • 1 cup (250ml) fresh, UHT long life, reconstituted powdered milk or buttermilk
  • ½ cup (120ml) evaporated milk
  • 2 slices (40g) or 4 x 3 x 2cm cube (40g) of hard cheese, such as cheddar
  • ½ cup (120g) ricotta cheese
  • ¾ cup (200g) yoghurt
  • 1 cup (250ml) soy, rice or other cereal drink with at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml

*Choose mostly reduced fat

If you do not eat any foods from this group, try the following foods, which contain about the same amount of calcium as a serve of milk, yoghurt, cheese or alternatives (note: the kilojoule content of some of these serves (especially nuts) is higher so watch this if trying to lose weight).

  • 100g almonds with skin
  • 60g sardines, canned in water
  • ½ cup (100g) canned pink salmon with bones
  • 100g firm tofu (check the label as calcium levels vary)

How many kilojoules are in a serve of each food group?

Not all food groups provide the same number of kilojoules (kJ) per serve.

A serve of the grain (cereals) food group; milks/yoghurt/cheese and /or alternatives group; lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and/or alternatives group; will provide about 500-600kJ.

About 2 serves of fruit, and from 2 serves (for starchy vegetables) to 5 serves (of green leafy vegetables) of different varieties in the vegetables group will provide about 500-600kJ. This is one reason that it makes good sense to fill up on leafy green and other lower kilojoule vegetables when you are trying to lose weight.

Also, while discretionary food serves can have similar kilojoules (about 600kJ) to a serve of the five food groups, they are usually much smaller and less filling, don’t provide you with the fibre and nutrients you need and contain too much saturated fat, added sugars and added salt for good health.

Getting Portion Sizes Back Under Control

Over one-third of U.S. adults — that’s more than 72 million people — are now considered obese. What we eat certainly contributes to America’s obesity epidemic, but how much we eat and our lack of portion control may be even more important factors. The bottom line: We are eating too much!

With free soda refills and supersized French fries lurking around every corner, it’s no wonder we have trouble controlling how much we eat. But if you want to control your weight, you must exhibit portion control.

What Is Portion Control?

A portion is just another word for the serving or amount of a food. The actual serving size of any given food you eat, whether you make it at home or order it in a restaurant, may be many times the portion amount suggested by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines. That means you may easily be eating more calories than you think and more than you need to maintain a healthy weight. Too much of any food, even if you’re eating a diet of only healthy food, can cause weight gain.

Related: 13 Secrets to Portion Control

Portion control means knowing the size of an average portion of common foods and, to avoid gaining weight, making sure that your portions don’t add up to more food than you need to eat every day. “Portion sizes will determine the calorie content of a meal. The more you eat, the more calories you consume,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University in Boston, Mass. “When trying to maintain a healthy weight, you need to make sure that you don’t consume more calories daily than you need.”

Portion Control: Sizing Up Total Daily Portions

According to the USDA, current daily recommendations for a 2,000-calorie diet include:

  • 5 1/2 ounces of lean meat or 1 1/4 cups cooked beans
  • 2 1/2 cups of vegetables
  • 2 cups of fruit
  • 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk or the equivalent dairy products
  • 3+ ounces of whole-grain products

Keep in mind these are the total amounts of food from the major food groups eaten per day, not per meal, and plan accordingly. If you eat a small steak or a large chicken breast at a meal, you may have all the meat you need for the entire day. Also, a 2,000-calorie diet isn’t appropriate for everyone; that may be too much for you. How many calories you need to consume per day depends on your existing weight, height, and how active you are. To find out how many calories per day you need, visit the USDA’s food pyramid Web site to get a more personalized breakdown of portion sizes right for you.

Portion Control: Recognizing Portion Sizes

It’s not practical to think that you can weigh every food you put on your plate. What you can do, however, is learn to recognize what key portion sizes look like, so help you know the right amount to serve yourself or eat at a restaurant.

  • Use the same size plates and bowls at each meal so that you can get use to what proper portion sizes look like on each dish.
  • Develop visual cues by matching portion sizes to familiar items.
    • A three-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap.
    • A medium potato is about equal to a computer mouse.
    • A half-cup of rice would just about fill a regular-sized cupcake wrapper.
    • One ounce of cheese is about the size of four dice.
    • Sandwich meat should be equivalent to the thickness of one standard slice of whole wheat bread. Vegetables should be twice the thickness of the meat.
  • Eyeball food portions based on the amount of room they take up on a dinner plate. For example, on an 8- to 10-inch plate, half of the plate should be covered with vegetables, one-quarter with a starch like rice or a potato, and one-quarter with a protein. The plate should not be overflowing and you should see some of the plate between the servings.

Portion Control When Eating Out

Controlling portion size when eating out can be a challenge because, in general, restaurant servings are considerably bigger than recommended portion sizes.

“Depending on the fat and water content of different foods, you could eat twice as much as you think or half as much . Also, it depends on the size of the plate, how much cheese is hidden inside the dish and so on,” says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, professor in the nutrition and psychiatry departments at Tufts University in Boston and author of The Instinct Diet (Workman). “Even people with a PhD in nutrition like me can’t really guess from looking at a plate of food we didn’t cook how many calories it has in it!”

Related: Food Facts All Foodies Should Know

However, there are ways to manage portion size when eating out. Lona Sandon, RD, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas offers these tips:

  • Choose from the children’s menu, if the restaurant lets you. “Just because it says 12 and under does not mean you cannot order from it,” says Sandon.
  • Have an appetizer or salad for your entrée.
  • Order a la carte from the side items on the menu rather than a main dish.
  • Request lunch portion sizes at dinner, since lunch portions are generally smaller.
  • Ask to have a to-go box brought with your meal and before you start eating, put half of what is on your plate in the box to take home for another meal. This is particularly good to do with deli sandwiches, which are almost always twice the size a person needs, says Sandon.

With careful portion control you can have your cake and eat it, too. Just be sure to do it in moderation!

A key part of healthful eating means choosing appropriate amounts of different foods. When it comes to deciding how much to eat, the terms serving size and portion size are often used interchangeably. However, they don’t mean the same thing.

Serving size is a standardized amount of food. It may be used to quantify recommended amounts, as is the case with the MyPlate food groups, or represent quantities that people typically consume on a Nutrition Facts label.

Portion size is the amount of a food you choose to eat — which may be more or less than a serving.

For example, the Nutrition Facts label may indicate ½ cup cereal for one serving but if you eat ¾ cup, that is your portion size.

Estimating Portion Sizes

Measuring cups and spoons are great tools for making sure your portion is the same as the serving size, however, these tools aren’t always available when you’re getting ready to eat. Another way to estimate your portion is by comparing it to something else.

  • A baseball or an average-sized fist
    • Measures about 1 cup
    • An appropriate portion size for raw or cooked vegetables, whole fruit or 100% fruit juice
  • A tennis ball or small, scooped handful
    • Measures about ½ cup
    • Equal to 1-ounce equivalent for grains, such as pasta, rice and oatmeal
  • A deck of cards or the palm of the hand
    • Measures about 3 ounce-equivalents
    • An appropriate portion size for fish, chicken, beef and other meats
  • The size of the thumb
    • Measures about 1 tablespoon
    • An appropriate portion size for peanut butter or other nut spreads such as almond butter
  • A postage stamp or the tip of the pointer finger to the first joint
    • Measures about 1 teaspoon
    • An appropriate portion size for oils or other fats

Measure foods regularly to get an idea of what the serving sizes look like. It becomes easier to pick the appropriate amount as you grow more accustomed to it. While serving sizes are a valuable tool, it’s important to listen to your body while eating. If you are still hungry after eating one serving, that likely means you need more food. And if you’re full on less than one serving, that’s OK too.

Overcoming Portion Distortion

It’s easy to mistake a larger portion as a better value. To overcome portion distortion and downsize your helpings, try the following:

  • Read the label. The Nutrition Facts label can help you to identify the appropriate serving size.
  • Eat from a plate, not a package. It’s easy to eat more than one serving when eating straight from the box or bag. Portion out your food first and put the container away before you start munching to keep your portion size in check.
  • Use the right tools. Try portioning out foods with measuring cups and spoons to give yourself an idea of what the serving size looks like. Small plates and bowls can also make the portion sizes appear larger and leave you feeling more satisfied.
  • Skip the upgrade. When dining out, it can seem like a better value to pay 50 cents extra for a larger size. If you can safely transport the food home to eat later, that might be a good deal. Otherwise just stick to the serving size you know you can eat at one sitting without feeling too full.

How much meat can you eat


Image: Thinkstock

Ask the doctor

Published: December, 2015

Q Everything I read in Harvard Men’s Health Watch about nutrition says to minimize the amount of red meat in my diet. Would it be best if I just gave it up completely? Or is there a safe amount to eat?

A Numerous studies have observed that consuming red meat is associated with diseases such as heart disease or colon cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization recently classified processed and red meats as cancer-causing substances. In most studies, it does appear that the lower your consumption of red meat, the better your health.

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If you’re looking for a simple way to watch your weight & eat healthy, follow this handy serving size chart to understand portions. It’s easier than you think!

One friend will only eat raw food, another has gone full paleo on you, and yet another has sworn off gluten! The good news is, there’s a science-based healthy eating plan that doesn’t require you to give up all the foods you love.

The American Heart Association recommends an overall healthy dietary pattern tailored to your personal and cultural food preferences. This pattern can include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, fish, skinless poultry, nuts, and fat-free/low-fat dairy products, and should limit sugary drinks, sweets, fatty or processed meats, solid fats, and salty or highly processed foods. It’s all about making smart choices.

So, what and how much should you eat?

Here are the recommended number of daily or weekly servings of each food type, based on eating a total of 2,000 calories per day. Your calorie needs may be different, depending on your age, activity level and whether you are trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight.

What’s a serving?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to measure everything you eat. We’ve provided a few examples of what represents one serving of common foods. Be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to understand the serving size and number of servings per package. And be aware of “portion distortion.” The recommended serving size is often less than the amount you’re used to eating or the portion you are served, especially at restaurants.

Vegetables

  • Fresh, frozen, canned and dried1
  • 5 servings per day
  • Examples:
    • 1 cup raw leafy greens
    • ½ cup cut-up vegetables
    • ½ cup cooked beans or peas2
    • ¼ cup 100% vegetable juice3

Fruits

  • Fresh, frozen, canned and dried1
  • 4 servings per day
  • Examples:
    • 1 medium whole fruit
    • ½ cup cut-up fruit
    • ¼ cup 100% fruit juice3
    • ¼ cup dried fruit1

Grains

  • At least half should be whole grain/high in dietary fiber
  • 6 servings per day
  • Examples:
    • 1 slice bread
    • 1 small tortilla
    • 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes
    • 1 oz (⅛ cup) uncooked pasta or rice
    • 1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
    • 1/2 cup popped popcorn

Dairy4

  • Low-fat and fat-free
  • 3 servings per day
  • Examples:
    • 1 cup milk
    • 1 cup yogurt
    • 1.5 oz cheese

Poultry, meat and eggs

  • Lean and extra-lean; skin and visible fat removed
  • 8-9 servings per week
  • Examples:
    • 3 oz cooked meat or poultry
    • 1 egg or 2 egg whites

Fish and other seafood

  • Preferably oily fish that provide omega-3 fatty acids
  • 2-3 servings per week
  • Example:
    • 3 oz cooked fish or seafood

Nuts, seeds, beans and legumes

  • 5 servings per week
  • Examples:
    • Tbsp peanut butter
    • 2 Tbsp or 1/2 oz nuts or seeds
    • ¼ cup cooked beans or peas2

Fats and oils

  • Preferably unsaturated
  • 3 servings per day
  • Examples:
    • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (canola, corn, olive, soybean, safflower)
    • 1 Tbsp soft margarine
    • 1 Tbsp low-fat mayonnaise
    • 1 Tbsp light salad dressing

1 Frozen, canned and dried produce can be as nutritious as fresh. Compare nutrition info on package labels and choose products with the lowest amounts of added sugars and sodium. Look for vegetables without salty sauces and fruits packed in their own juices or water instead of heavy syrup. Drain and rinse canned produce and beans.
2 Note that 1/4 cup cooked beans = 1 oz protein equivalent but 1/2 cup cooked beans = 1 vegetable serving.
3 A small portion (1/2 cup) of 100% juice can fulfill one of your recommended daily servings. But keep in mind, juice isn’t as filling as whole fruits and vegetables and may have extra calories and less nutrients like fiber. Avoid sweetened juice and juice drinks.
4 Includes nondairy nut/grain/soy-based milks that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and low in sugar.

Last Reviewed 1/2017

Q&A: How much red meat should we eat?

Ham, bacon, sausages, pate and tinned meat, as well as preserved, salted, smoked and marinated products.

How much meat do most of us eat?

What does 17.5oz (500g) a week look like?

1 x 8 oz (227g) steak

1 x 4 oz (113g) pork chop

2 x pork sausages 1.7oz (50g) each = 3.5oz (100g)

1 x portion Bolognese sauce = containing 2.1oz (60g) of beef

What is the danger of eating too much red meat and processed meat?

There is strong evidence that those eating above average amounts of red meat have an increased risk of bowel cancer, and some studies have linked it to many other cancers. In 2005 a study found those who regularly ate 5.6oz (160g) of red meat a day had one third higher risk of bowel cancer.

What is the current advice?

Recommendations from 1998 suggest 3oz (90g) a day is a healthy amount and say those eating more than 5oz (140g) a day should cut back.

In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund recommended a limit of 17oz (500g) a week.

Why is red meat thought to increase the risk of cancer?

A pigment found in red meat seems to damage the DNA of cells lining the digestive system – and DNA damage is one of the first signs of cancer. It is also thought that burning meat and some of the preservatives used in processed meats increase risks.

What is the advice on processed meat?

The advice this week is not expected to give specific guidance on processed meats – it will just say that consumers should have no more than 17oz (500g) of all red meats. But in 2009, the World Cancer Research Fund recommended eating no more than 2.5oz (70g) processed meat a week – the equivalent of three rashers of bacon – and said children should not have processed meat at all.

What is the overall risk of bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK, and more than 16,000 people die from it each year. 95 per cent of diagnoses are in people over the age of 50. Early diagnosis drastically improves the chance of survival.

Do all the scientists agree about the health risks from red meat?

No. Most research suggests there is some bowel cancer risk from eating too much red meat, but the level which is safe is hotly disputed.

Last week, a report by the British Nutrition Foundation said there was no evidence to make any link between average red meat consumption levels and cancer, and that research connecting meat-eating with cardiovascular disease was inconclusive. Evidence linking red meat to the development of other cancers is weaker.

Limit red and processed meat

One of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations is to eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, and eat little, if any, processed meat.

There is strong evidence that consumption of either red or processed meat are both causes of colorectal cancer.

This Recommendation is not to completely avoid eating meat. Meat can be a valuable source of nutrients, in particular protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12

What is red meat?

All types of muscle meat from a mammal, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.

What is processed meat?

Meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Processed meat can include ham, salami, bacon and some sausages such as frankfurters and chorizo. Minced meats such as fresh sausages may sometimes, though not always, count as processed meat.

Dietary goal

  • If you eat red meat, limit consumption to no more than about three portions per week. Three portions is equivalent to about 350–500g (about 12–18oz) cooked weight. Consume very little, if any, processed meat.

The amount of red meat specified was chosen to provide a balance between the advantages of eating red meat (as a source of essential macro- and micronutrients) and the disadvantages (an increased risk of colorectal cancer and other non-communicable diseases).

“The evidence on processed meat and cancer is clear-cut. The data show that no level of intake can confidently be associated with a lack of risk. Processed meats are often high in salt, which can also increase the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease”
– Professor Martin Wiseman, World Cancer Research Fund International’s Medical and Scientific Adviser

Should I give up red meat?

Red meat is a good source of protein, iron and other micronutrients. For those who consume it, lean rather than fatty cuts are preferred. Poultry and fish are valuable substitutes for red meat. Eggs and dairy are also valuable sources of protein and micronutrients.

This Recommendation is not to completely avoid eating meat. Meat can be a valuable source of nutrients, in particular protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. However, eating meat is not an essential part of a healthy diet. People who choose to eat meat-free diets can obtain adequate amounts of these nutrients through careful food selection.

People can obtain adequate protein from a mixture of pulses (legumes) and cereals (grains). Iron is present in many plant foods, though it is less bioavailable than that in meat.

  • Three portions is equivalent to about 350 to 500 grams (about 12 to 18 ounces), cooked weight, of red meat.
  • 500 grams of cooked red meat is about equivalent to 700 to 750 grams of raw meat.

See graphics and more in our toolkit.

Public health and policy implications

A whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach is necessary to create environments for people and communities that are conducive to limiting consumption of red meat and processed meat.

A comprehensive package of policies is needed to support people to consume diversified diets including limited red meat and little, if any, processed meat, including policies that influence the food environment, the food system and behaviour change communication across the life course. Globally, food systems that are directed towards foods of plant rather than animal origin are more likely to contribute to a sustainable ecological environment. Policymakers are encouraged to frame specific goals and actions according to their national context. Find out more on policy action for cancer prevention.

Our Recommendations work together as an overall way of living healthily to prevent cancer. Download the full chapter PDF below

Eating about one serving of meat daily puts ethnic Chinese adults at increased risk of diabetes, a study here has found, echoing research that has mainly been conducted on Westerners so far.

The study, which tracked 45,411 people from 1999 to 2010, found that a median daily consumption of just one palm-sized serving of meat increased the risk by 23 per cent for red meat and 15 per cent for poultry respectively.

The culprit is the dietary haem iron content found in meat and poultry, said the senior author of the study, Professor Koh Woon Puay of the Duke-NUS Medical School.

Red or dark meat, such as beef, mutton and pork, contains a higher amount of myoglobin protein, which carries haem iron for binding oxygen. Haem iron is more quickly absorbed by the body, but excessive amounts can damage tissues such as those that produce insulin in the pancreas.

The more myoglobin, the higher the haem iron content, the darker the meat. Some parts of chicken, such as the thigh, are also considered dark meat.

While haem iron is found only in meat, poultry, seafood and fish, non-haem iron is found in both meat and plant-based foods like dark green vegetables, nuts and seeds.

  • What is red meat?

    Red meat is beef, lamb or pork. However, the concentration of myoglobin in pork is not as heavy as compared with beef.

    The higher the myoglobin concentration, the darker the meat.

    Chicken has a mixture of dark and white meats. Breast meat and the wings are considered white meat, while the thigh is considered dark meat.

    Duck is also a type of dark meat.

    Fish is mainly white meat.

    What is haem iron? How is it related to diabetes?

    While iron is an essential mineral, having a high intake of iron in the diet in the form of haem iron has been shown to have adverse effects.

    While insufficient iron in the body can result in anaemia, absorbing too much in the form of haem iron can lead to oxidative stress, damaging tissues in the body, especially the beta cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for the production of insulin. This in turn results in difficulty in regulating blood glucose levels.

    Haem iron is easily absorbed and too much can accumulate in the pancreas and liver, while absorption of non-haem iron is regulated by the body.

The Duke-NUS study is of Chinese Singaporeans and permanent residents aged between 45 and 74 years when they were recruited between 1993 and1998.

They were interviewed twice about their diet using a questionnaire that covered 165 food items, including 33 that had meat.

The large-scale cohort study seeks to determine the impact of dietary and other environmental factors in common chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes among the Singapore adult population.

Factors taken into account included total food intake, smoking status, alcohol consumption, body mass index, physical activity, history of hypertension, and adherence to a diet high in vegetables, fruit and soya bean products.

Out of the 45,411 participants, none of whom had diabetes at the start, 5,207 were found to have diabetes after 11 years of study.

The average meat consumption in Singapore is 97g a day and Prof Koh said cutting down one’s intake of meat was 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 of 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.

Similar findings have been reported in Western studies, but this is the first representative study in South-east Asia. A Harvard study in 2011 showed that a daily serving of red meat increased the risk of adult-onset diabetes by 19 per cent.

Though other ethnic groups were not included in the study, Prof Koh predicts a similar result.

Dr Annie Ling, director of the Policy, Research and Surveillance Division of the Health Promotion Board (HPB), said: “These 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.”

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