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What Really Causes Type 2 Diabetes

Learn Which Risk Factors Are Preventable

Contrary to popular belief, type 2 diabetes (a chronic disease) isn’t caused by eating lots of sweets. Actually, the cause is still unknown, but there are certain factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of developing this metabolic disorder. There are two main categories of risks that are associated with the development of type 2 diabetes—those that you can't change (uncontrollable), and those that you can (controllable).  The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Although these factors are out of your control, it is important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories.
  • Your age. Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases as you get older. Diabetes most often affects people over age 40, and people over 65 are at even higher risk. It is recommended that people aged 45 and older be tested for diabetes every three years.
  • Your family history. There is some evidence that diabetes runs in families. If your parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, for example, your risk of developing diabetes increases.
  • Your race. Certain ethnicities—African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islander Americans—are at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Your health history. Women who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy are 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years. Giving birth to a baby over nine pounds also increases a woman's risk. Other illnesses and conditions that are risk factors for type 2 diabetes include pre-diabetes and any condition that affects the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, such as pancreatitis, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome, impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), and vascular disease (such as heart attack or stroke).
You may fall into many of the above categories, or none of them. In either case, pay close attention to the controllable risk factors below, as there are several lifestyle habits that you CAN change to help reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Controllable Risk Factors
Factors within your control are related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and whether or not to exercise. Even if you have a high risk for diabetes, you can take control of these factors to reduce your risk.
  • Your weight. More than 80% of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Carrying excess weight around your abdomen and waistline (known as the "apple" shape), greatly increases your risk of diabetes. While you can't change where your body stores fat (that's genetic), you can lose weight, no matter what your body shape. Calculate your waist-to-hip ratio to find out more about your body shape and how to improve it. You can decrease your risk with each pound you lose. In fact, dropping just 10% of your body weight (25 pounds for someone who weighs 250 pounds) can have major benefits. Use your free SparkPeople nutrition plan to reach your weight-loss goals.
  • Your activity level. Physically inactive people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. If you don't exercise consistently, or if you take part in planned exercises fewer than three times per week, you could be at risk. To get started, read exercising with diabetes.
  • Your medications. Several types of medications, including antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, can dramatically increase your risk. If you are already at high-risk for developing diabetes, talk to your doctor about finding an alternative medication for your condition that doesn't have this negative side effect.
  • Your diet. Though the types of food you eat do not actually cause diabetes, what you choose to eat is directly related to your health and  your weight. If your diet is high in calories and unhealthy foods (sugar, saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fats), your diet could be contributing to your diabetes risk. Use the Nutrition Resource Center as a guide for healthy eating habits.
  • Your drinking habits. Heavy alcohol use can permanently damage the pancreas and impair its ability to secrete insulin, which can result in type 2 diabetes. Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink daily for women or two drinks daily for men.
  • Your smoking habits. Smokers are 50% to 90% more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers. Smoking can harm the pancreas, increase blood sugar levels, impair your body's ability to use insulin, and cause a host of other health problems. If you smoke, taking steps to quit today can reduce your risk of serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes.
The good thing is that you can work on changing the risk factors that you can control. Studies show that maintaining a healthy weight and regularly engaging in physical activity can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes nearly 60 percent. You should work closely with your doctor to develop a diabetes risk-reduction plan that is safe and effective for you.
For more specific information or help, talk to your health care provider. The American Diabetes Association's National Call Center also offers live advice from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday at 1-800-DIABETES or 1-800-342-2383.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Amy Poetker, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator.

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Member Comments

  • Very informative and interesting article
  • This article is ancient and needs a complete redo. Please. It's an important subject!
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  • My friend & sister in law both have controlled their symptoms by following the recommended diabetes diet. They feel healthier & have lost weight. Neither takes meds anymore. They have been fortunate, as not all people in that situation have had the same results.
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  • I was glad you mentioned about diabetes and sugar consumption- my aunt had type 1 for years and even thought she was a good church going Catholic lady she used to say that it was B******T that sugar caused diabetes.
  • Good information. Thanks
    those uncontrollable risk factors do not mean that we should resign and accept that as we age, we naturally get diabetes. we cannot control these factors, but nonetheless we can avoid getting the diabetes. getting the diabetes at later age mostly means that something was not right with other factors earlier in the life, whether controllable or not. this was just a theoretical input in the article.
    while it is true, that diabetes does not develop only after eating sweets, later on it was correctly mentioned that sugars can also contribute to this condition, especially in the liquid form, including sweetened juice drinks. it is the imbalance of several factors at once and everybody has a different blend of these factors present.
    the main point is that with controlling these factors one does not have to develop diabetes type 2 at all, regardless of those uncontrollable factors, too.
  • This article is very old and needs updating that is based on more current science.
  • Keepyourpower- don't worry, whoever told you that about the health insurance reforms ("Obamacare") was ignorant or lying to scare you. You won't go to jail and you won't be paying 30K for insurance with a 30K deductible. It's the current system that is really the problem because the private companies are for-profit and maximize profit by trying to push us out of the pool when we get sick, injured, or older. I struggled to pay increasing premiums in my fifties, rising 30-35% every year. A simple UTI mismanaged by a local doctor put me in the hospital and ran up expenses for expensive unnecessary tests. I was in big debt for 6 years, since my insurance company cherry picked its way through the bills instead of paying everything above the deductible (as my policy was supposed to do) and I was out of work for several months thanks to the incompetent doctor and hospital. Soon after the hospitalization, they pushed me into double the deductible and of course raised the premium another 35%. Finally they wanted 53% of my income, which would not even have left enough for the deductible after taxes and business expenses. I had to cancel. There were few choices in my state and all were equally bad, so I've been uninsured for several years. But I couldn't afford a doctor even with insurance and couldn't rely on a policy to actually pay. So like many Americans, with or without insurance I would be just one injury or serious illness away from bankruptcy and losing everything anyway. And yet I was just out of range for eligibility for a state insurance program, which would have a reasonable premium strictly tied to income (as other developed countries do it).

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    With a strong family history of diabetes, and a job that requires some hours at the computer mixed with opportunities for movement, this article was very helpful. Also, I did not realize that my Prozac can actually contribute to my weight loss (looked it up online). And, as I study depression (also a strong family history), I find that a healthy diet and regular exercise are also helpful with this disorder. What I did not realize was that my two beers a night are actually contributing to the depression. Thanks for making me think, look things up for myself and for giving straight information that we can rely on.

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.