Practitioners

Diabetes Awareness Week: It’s not just diet – the other diabetes risk factors you should know

If we were playing a game of Word Association and you heard the word ‘diabetes’, I’d bet ‘diet’ would be one of the first words that springs to your mind.

And it makes sense. Diet is, after all, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. But it’s not the only one.

Given that around 1 in 3 people are pre-diabetic (a term that simply means you have elevated blood sugar levels and are progressing towards type 2 diabetes), it’s worthwhile knowing what the major risk factors are.

So, this Diabetes Awareness Week, we’re offering an explainer on some of the risk factors for diabetes and providing a few practical tips to help you mitigate them.

A quick lesson before we dive in…

Type 2 diabetes and diet: What to know

Eating certain foods can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. You might already have an inkling as to what some of them are.

Highly processed carbohydrates are one type of food that can greatly increase your risk.

These foods, usually made with white flour, white sugar, and white rice, are easy to digest and cause spikes in insulin and blood sugar levels, which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Sugary drinks are another offender.

Research published in Diabetes Care found that drinking one to two sugary drinks per day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 26 percent, compared with having less than one serving a month.

Then there are ultra-processed foods and trans fats, found in baked goods and fried foods. These can increase inflammation in the vascular system (arteries).

That’s important because inflammation is at the heart of type 2 diabetes.

One food type you maybe didn’t expect to see here is highly processed meats. Such as luncheon meats, reformed sliced meats, poor-quality sausages and deli meats.

Over time, when consumed frequently, their nitrate content can contribute to an increased type 2 diabetes risk too.

The good news is that by limiting these foods and creating better dietary habits you can take back control.

What are some of the main risk factors for diabetes?

As we mentioned, it’s not just food that can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. Here are some other factors to be mindful of…

Genetics

Let’s look at one of the less preventable ones first. Genetics. You can be genetically predisposed to type 2 diabetes and you’re more at risk if a sibling or parent has it.

Having other illnesses, like high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and high cholesterol, can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes too.

Understanding genetics

There’s not a whole lot you can do about your genetics, but knowing you have a genetic predisposition for diabetes puts you at an advantage.

It empowers you to make informed decisions about your life and serves as a reminder to watch out for preventable factors like the ones we’re about to delve into.

It can be empowering to remember that how you live is responsible for 90% of type 2 diabetes diagnoses.

Stress

woman hiking

We all know stress isn’t good for us, but it doesn’t just result in tiredness, irritability, and the occasional headache. It can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes as well.

Stress causes the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which can contribute to elevated blood sugar levels over time.

It’s a vicious cycle because research suggests that when we’re stressed we’re less likely to exercise regularly which can increase our risk of obesity, and in turn, type 2 diabetes.

Mitigating stress

Stress can be difficult to avoid. It’s become part and parcel of our modern busy world. If avoiding it is out of the question, aim to manage it and recover properly from it instead.

Relaxation methods like deep-belly breathing, meditation and yoga can help you relax, while exercise is a great way to let off steam.

Aerobic exercises reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones while simultaneously stimulating the release of mood-elevating endorphins.

Poor sleep

At some point or another you’ve encountered the effects of a bad night’s sleep. Chronically bad sleep and lack of sleep can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.

In fact, research suggests that people who sleep less than six hours a night are at a considerably higher risk for type 2 diabetes than those who sleep seven to eight hours a night. Even if they follow a healthy diet.

Inadequate sleep can affect ghrelin and leptin, two hormones involved in appetite. Ever had a terrible sleep and then wanted to eat more the next day? That’s these two hormones playing havoc because they are unbalanced from a lack of zzz.

It can also impair glucose metabolism, leading to blood glucose imbalances irrespective of what you eat the next day, which you guessed it, can then go on to contribute to type 2 diabetes over time.

Getting a good night’s sleep

So, what can you do if a good night’s rest is hard to come by? A good place to start is limiting the amount of caffeine you consume during the day.

A 2023 review found that late caffeine consumption reduced total sleep time by 45 minutes and overall sleep efficiency by 7%.

The same goes for food. Try not to eat too close to bedtime. And aim to keep blood sugar levels stable with meal choices across the day to reduce any blood sugar spikes and drops throughout the night.

Other healthy habits like exercising and getting bright light exposure early in the day are beneficial too.

Physical inactivity

Exercise class with women and men

Yet another reason to hit the gym or get out for that morning walk. Physical inactivity is associated with increased insulin resistance.

If you’re not familiar with that term, we’ve written all about it here, but to give you a quick primer, it’s when the body’s cells no longer respond properly to insulin.

As well as being linked to insulin resistance, being inactive can contribute to weight gain (another major diabetes risk factor) and impair blood sugar control, which can play a role in type 2 diabetes development.

Finding ways to be physically active

If your schedule is jam-packed, it’s easy to neglect movement, but for better health, exercise needs to be a non-negotiable. Don’t worry, you don’t need to spend hours at the gym – and in fact, regular movement is better than 1 hour in the gym and 8 hours at your desk.

Around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week is the recommended amount.

Bonus points if you can get out in nature. A 2018 review of studies found that living in an area with more walkability and green space lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Takeaway

A poor diet isn’t the only risk factor for diabetes. There are loads of factors that can increase your risk – but the good news is that many of them are preventable.

By making healthier food choices, prioritising good quality sleep, taking steps to manage stress, and moving more, you can reduce your type 2 diabetes risk – even if you’re genetically predisposed.

Ready to feel healthier and happier?

I hope this blog has inspired you to make changes so ou can avoid or reverse type 2 diabetes.
Book your free call with a nutritionist at Integral Wellness to understand how to take the first step.
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