Healthy Investigates: Is diabetes your diet’s fault?
Figures show 3.2 million in the UK have diabetes – and, worryingly, 630,000 have it without realising. Many more are on the cusp of developing it. So is an unhealthy diet the culprit?
Type 2 is linked to your lifestyle
There are two forms of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. The symptoms – including fatigue and excessive thirst – are the same. And both forms, if poorly controlled, can be linked to serious complications including blindness and a raised risk of heart disease, for example. But the causes of the two forms are different. Type 1 diabetes occurs when your pancreas can’t produce the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. It’s caused by an autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakenly attacks cells in the pancreas, and often develops in childhood. People with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which is by far the most common form, is connected to lifestyle factors such as being overweight, and usually affects adults.
Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes
Contrary to popular belief, a diet high in sugary food and soft drinks doesn’t directly cause type 2 diabetes. But that’s no excuse to load up on cake and chocolate. As being overweight is a major risk factor for diabetes, an unhealthy, high-calorie diet can up your risk because it’s likely to lead to weight gain. Carrying excess weight around the middle is especially bad news. The reason? This type of fat secretes inflammatory substances that can contribute to insulin resistance. So whip out your tape measure: you’re at higher risk if you’re a woman and your waist measures over 31.5 inches, or a man with a waist measurement above 37 inches.
Other risk factors
While excess weight’s a big risk factor, others include a sedentary lifestyle, a family history of type 2 diabetes, increasing age (you’re at higher risk over 40), having had gestational diabetes during pregnancy, and being from a South Asian, African, African-Caribbean or Middle Eastern background. If any of these risk factors apply to you, it may be especially important to take lifestyle steps to lower your chances of diabetes.
Shift pounds to prevent diabetes
‘The most consistent evidence shows losing weight is the best way to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes,’ says Douglas Twenefour, clinical adviser at charity Diabetes UK. You don’t necessarily need to cut out particular foods. ‘It’s getting to a healthy weight that’s important, however you do it,’ says Twenefour. Watch your portion sizes and aim for a balanced diet, based around at least five daily servings of vegetables and fruit, with some lean meat, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds. You also need some starchy carbs, but try to go for those that are low on the glycaemic index, so release their energy slowly, such as wholewheat pasta, granary bread and basmati or wild rice – avoid too many high-GI carbs, like mashed potato, oven chips and white bread. Keep sugar and fat to a minimum, too.
Being active is also crucial: as well as helping you to get to or stay at a healthy weight, activity helps your body use insulin. Again, it doesn’t really matter how you do it – but try to be active enough to raise your heart rate for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.
Beat bad habits
Quit smoking – it raises your risk of type 2 diabetes, found a large Europe-wide study published in Diabetes Care. And reduce alcohol – it’s high in calories and can lower your resolve to eat well and exercise.
Get checked out
‘If you’re over 40, make sure you go for your five-yearly heart health check, which looks for raised blood glucose levels as well as high cholesterol,’ says Twenefour. And if you notice symptoms such as tiredness, unusual thirst and needing to pass water more often, always see your GP, as these can be indicators of diabetes.