The #1 Cause of Diabetes, According to Doctors — Eat This Not That

Technically the cause of diabetes is your body’s inability to respond normally to insulin—but there are very specific lifestyle factors that raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “The current system for managing diabetes is broken,” says Dr. Osama Hamdy, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center. Here are the top five causes of diabetes, according to doctors. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.

Overweight woman in tight clothes at home is trying to fit into tight jeans.
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Being overweight or obese is strongly linked to type 2 diabetes, hence the new medical term “diabesity.” “Diabesity is a disease with enormous potential to cause ill effects on the body in the long run,” says endocrinologist Jay Waddadar, MD. “Some people don’t understand the importance of taking the steps to manage it because they’re feeling well at the time of diagnosis. But that’s a big mistake. Diabesity is a silent disease that damages your body if it’s not controlled, even while you feel fine.” Obesity can make diabetes significantly worse, Dr. Waddadar explains, thanks to excess fat in the liver not leaving space for glucose storage. “Your pancreas creates even more insulin trying to accomplish the job of moving glucose out of the blood. It’s trying starts to push against the resistance created by the fat. Your pancreas becomes overworked, and as a result, it wears out. It producing less insulin. Diabetes develops and then quickly remains if the fat resistance.”

Lazy man watching television at night alone

Sitting for prolonged periods in the day—even if you exercise—can lead to diabetes. One study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that women were especially in danger of developing insulin resistance as a result of sitting too much. “This study provides important new evidence that higher levels of sitting time have a deleterious impact on insulin resistance and chronic low-grade inflammation in women but not men and that this effect is seen regardless of how much exercise is undertaken,” says Dr. Thomas Yates. “This suggests that women who meet the national recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise a day may still be compromising their health if they are seated for the rest of the day. It therefore suggests that enabling women to spend less time sitting may be an important factor in preventing chronic disease.”

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Preventing diabetes is more than just not sitting all day—exercise is extremely important in helping manage blood sugar. “We now have evidence that physical activity is an important part of the daily maintenance of glucose levels,” says John Thyfault, Ph.D. “It is recommended that people take about 10,000 steps each day. Recent evidence shows that most Americans are only taking about half of that, or 5,000 steps a day. This chronic inactivity leads to impaired glucose control and increases the risk of developing diabetes.”

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Close-up Of Person's Hand Checking Blood Sugar Level With Glucometer
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Prediabetes is a condition where your blood sugar is higher than normal, and if not treated, can lead to type 2 diabetes. “The way I explain prediabetes to my patients is that your body is struggling to keep your blood glucose levels in a healthy range,” says nutritionist Lauren Antonucci, RD. “You shouldn’t panic, but you should start making real changes in your diet and lifestyle to prevent your blood sugar from rising and turning into type 2. Going on medication for prediabetes treatment is not cut and dry. Your blood sugar levels, A1C , medical history, and other complications might put you in a situation where medication should be added to your treatment plan to avoid type 2 – it’s case by case, so work with your doctor to arrive at the best treatment for you.”

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There is growing evidence that cutting back on carbs can lower the risk of diabetes, even if no weight is lost. “There’s no doubt that people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes do better on low-carb diets, but they typically lose weight and one of the prevailing thoughts is that the weight loss is driving the improvements. That was clearly not the case here, ” says Jeff Volek, Ph.D, professor of human sciences at Ohio State. “Our view is that restricting carbs even without weight loss improves a host of metabolic problems. Obviously, quality of diet matters because quantity is locked down in this experiment. Even a modest restriction in carbs is enough to reverse metabolic syndrome in some people, but others need to restrict even more.”

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