Environmental Factors

Several environmental factors have been identified as playing an important role in causing type 2 diabetes. These include being overweight or obese, not getting regular physical activity, smoking, and eating excess calories.

You can lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes and, if you have type 2 diabetes, improve your ability to control your high blood sugar by2:

Getting to and staying at a healthier weight. By adopting a healthy pattern of eating and getting regular physical activity you can lose weight and decrease your diabetes risk. If you have diabetes, reducing your weight and keeping excess weight off will improve your ability to control your blood sugar. A strong body of research has shown that weight loss results in improved sensitivity to insulin and a correction in the balance of hormones involved in glucose control.

Regular moderate physical activity. Regular moderate physical activity, such as walking briskly, has been shown to decrease risk for type 2 diabetes.
Smoking. Studies have established a link between smoking and risk of developing diabetes (one study even showed that second-hand smoke increased risk). However, the link is not as clear as with obesity and lack of physical activity. Additionally, quitting smoking is sometimes accompanied by weight gain. You should definitely consider kicking the habit, if you smoke, but conventional wisdom says that you should also accompany smoking cessation with a plan for losing weight and getting regular physical activity.

A healthy, carlorie-appropriate pattern of eating. When it comes to what you eat, most research shows that controlling calorie intake (and body weight) is the most important factor in decreasing risk for type 2 diabetes. Adopting an energy-appropriate, nutrient-dense pattern of eating can help you achieve this goal. A healthy eating pattern should be based on recommendations for the general public in the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for American, 2010 and should include a high intake of fruits, vegetables, and dietary fiber and a low intake of total fat, saturated fat, and added sugars. For example, when it comes to carbohydrates, you should choose whole grains, legumes (peas and beans), vegetables, and fruits (especially those high in dietary fiber). For protein, animal- and plant-based source can be part of a healthy eating plan. However, some animal-based protein sources contain saturated fat, so low-fat, non-fat, or lean sources should be selected. For fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in seafood, nuts, seeds, and oils should be selected.

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference!

Results from a large US National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study conducted at centers throughout the country over a period of 3 years, including over 3,000 individuals with prediabetes showed the power of lifestyle changes in reducing risk of progression to type 2 diabetes.3

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to different interventions, including an intensive program of lifestyle modification (a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and behavior modification), drug therapy with the diabetes drug metformin and information on diet and physical activity, or a placebo medication and information on diet and physical activity. Both the lifestyle intervention and drug therapy groups reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but the group that received lifestyle modification had the most dramatic reduction in risk. For participants in this group, a weight reduction of 5% to 7% (this translates to a loss of about 10-14 lbs in a person who weighs 200 lbs) reduced the risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes by almost 60%. Results from a follow-up of the study found that healthy diet and regular physical activity continued to provide benefits for the long term, reducing the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 34% at 10 years compared with the placebo group.3

This demonstrates the huge potential for lifestyle changes in reducing diabetes risk. And those lifestyle changes don’t necessarily have to be extreme. To get their physical activity, most participants in the DPP study were not running marathons, but walking regularly (at least 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week).

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2014.
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