Eating better and moving more help reduce diabetes risk


Dear Doctors: Does Type 2 diabetes run in the family? My dad and sister both have it, and I’m worried I’m next. We are a meat-and-potatoes family, and I’ve got a sweet tooth. I want to lose weight and eat healthier. Would a more plant-based diet help? What else can I do?

Dear Reader: Yes, Type 2 diabetes can run in families.

For those who aren’t familiar, Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which the body loses the ability to keep levels of blood glucose, also known as blood sugar, within a healthy range. Having too much glucose in the blood for extended periods of time leads to a range of serious health problems. When it goes untreated, Type 2 diabetes can damage the heart, kidneys and nerves; cause vision problems; and increase risk of stroke.

The reason the disease can run in families is partly due to someone’s genetic makeup, which leaves them with a predisposition to the disease. Researchers have identified several genetic mutations that have been linked to Type 2 diabetes. Environmental factors play an important role, as well. Obesity, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, small or large birth weight and stress all contribute to developing the disease. However, they don’t affect all people in the same way. The data shows that when these risk factors are present, people with a family history of Type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop the disease than those with no familial link to the condition.

The lifestyle changes that you are considering -- reaching a healthy weight and adopting a healthful and balanced diet -- would be important moves toward reducing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Adding regular daily exercise, which helps the body to manage blood glucose levels, would also improve your chances of avoiding the disease. And when it comes to diet, a strong body of research shows that a plant-forward diet is associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

A recent study, conducted by scientists at Harvard University, examined a vast body of data collected from 10,000 people who had participated in a trio of decadeslong health surveys. The participants were sorted into groups based on the diets they had followed, and their blood plasma samples and long-term health outcomes were analyzed. The researchers found a strong correlation between a healthful diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and legumes and a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Study participants with less-healthful diets -- which were high in refined grains, sugary beverages, fruit juices, potatoes and sweets and desserts -- had a measurably higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes. They were also more likely to be overweight, to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and to use medications to control those conditions. This new study adds to previous research that identify the daily dietary choices that we make as a significant factor in our risk of developing the disease.

Moving forward with your proposed plan, as well as becoming more physically active, will set you on a healthier path.

At UCLA Health, our Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism consistently ranks among the top programs of its kind in the nation. Learn more and schedule your appointment.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)