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Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes

By Laurie Marbas, M.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Causes of Type 2 Diabetes

The cause of Type 2 diabetes is twofold: genetics and environmental factors. Individuals who have first-degree relatives with Type 2 diabetes are at a five to 10 times greater risk of developing it themselves. People of certain ethnicities, such as Hispanic, African and Asian, are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Environmental factors, including your diet and activity level, are also causes of Type 2 diabetes. A diet high in saturated fats is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes because it has been shown to increase insulin resistance. Saturated fats are derived from animal sources (meat) and dairy products (milk, butter and cheese). According to one study, as the amount of smoking increased, the rate of diabetes increased. Lifestyle contributes to most of the causes of Type 2 diabetes, so making appropriate changes will dramatically decrease the likelihood of it developing.

Risks Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include:

1) Parents have Type 2 diabetes

2) Abdominal obesity

3) History of gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or if you gave birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds

4) Certain ethnic groups, including Black, Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander

5) Previous A1c greater than or equal to 5.7, indicating impaired fasting glucose or pre-diabetes

6) Lack of exercise or physical inactivity

7) History of polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS

8) Low high-density lipoprotein (less than 35 mg/dL) and/or low triglycerides (less than 250 mg/dL)

9) Acanthosis nigricans, a dark, velvety rash around the neck or armpits

Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes

Even though Type 2 diabetes has a strong genetic component, an individual’s diet and lifestyle are more likely to influence whether Type 2 diabetes will manifest or not. The Diabetes Prevention Program demonstrated that a healthy diet when combined with consistent exercise reduces the risk for Type 2 diabetes.

In studies, combined diet and exercise showed a 58 percent risk reduction for Type 2 diabetes — even greater in individuals 60 and older, at a 71 percent risk reduction, whereas drug therapy (such as metformin) alone had a 31 percent reduction.

Also, Asians and Africans who follow their traditional diets (low in animal products and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber) and who are physically active have a lower incidence of diabetes than Americans who follow a standard American diet and are sedentary. Vegetarians also have a lower incidence of diabetes.

The reasons for these findings include:

1) Saturated fat is associated with impaired fasting glucose, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.

2) High levels of fiber in the diet lower glucose levels in the blood after meals.

3) High-fiber diets contain micronutrients that help glucose tolerance, such as magnesium. Foods high in magnesium include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, avocados, bananas and dried fruit. The daily recommended daily value for magnesium is 400 mg.

4) A diet high in heme iron, found in meat, is associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

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