Diabetes is the body’s inability to make or effectively use insulin, a hormone that helps the body utilize glucose for energy. There are three types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational. Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that only occurs in women who are pregnant, and it generally resolves itself after childbirth. Type 1 and type 2 diabetes can affect anyone, and there are several risk factors for these.

Type 1 diabetes risk factors

Type 1 diabetes generally begins in early childhood when the pancreas stops producing insulin. The number one risk factor for Type 1 diabetes is family history. This disease is chronic and hereditary. If you have a first-degree relative (father, mother, or sibling) with type 1 diabetes, an easy blood test is necessary to determine whether or not you have it or are at risk.

Another risk factor for type 1 diabetes is any disease of the pancreas. Since the pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, any disease that affects its ability to do so can cause diabetes. There are other rare types of infections or disorders that can cause type 1 diabetes, but they are so rare as to be nearly non-existent. A recent review of some of the research surrounding the theory that certain viral infections cause type 1 diabetes has called that theory into question, and heredity remains the number 1 cause of type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes risk factors

As with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes develops when the body is no longer able to produce or utilize insulin. The main and most important difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is that type 2 diabetes is generally developed in adulthood and is thus viewed as preventable. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes in the U.S. The risk factors for type 2 diabetes are as follows.


Being overweight is the number one risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that more than a third of adults in the United States are obese, and 17% of children under age 18 are obese. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9. Body mass index can be determined using a simple calculator.


Lack of exercise and movement is the second highest risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Exercising less than 60 minutes three times a week puts you at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Exercise helps the body utilize glucose, and more intense exercise helps utilize glucose more quickly. A sedentary lifestyle contributes to inefficient or improper utilization of glucose and can lead quickly to prediabetes, the next risk factor.

Prediabetes, or Impaired Glucose Intolerance

As many as 79 million people have this condition in which the body is unable to tolerate or process glucose. This condition is generally seen as the first stage of diabetes, but many people are unaware they have this.

Ethnic background and socioeconomic status

African-American, Hispanic-Latino, Native-American, and Pacific Island people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts.

This may be due to the fact that minorities and people with a low socio-economic status are more likely to be obese, and their rate of diabetes is correspondingly higher. The rate of diabetes for minorities is two or more times the rate of diabetes for white people of all ages and both genders. This rate increases further when socioeconomics come into play, and the prevailing type of diabetes is type 2. With the obesity rates up to 51% or higher for blacks and 21% or higher for Hispanics when compared to whites, this may explain the disparity in incidence of type 2 diabetes among races.

High blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol levels

A blood pressure reading of 140/90 or higher increases the risk of diabetes substantially, as does having high triglyceride (“bad” cholesterol) levels.

Gestational diabetes

Developing gestational diabetes while pregnant does increase the chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, but gestational diabetes during pregnancy does not guarantee type 2 diabetes later.

Age and family history

Although the rise of childhood obesity has caused a corresponding rise in type 2 diabetes in children under 18, most type 2 diabetes cases develop in people over the age 45 who have a family history of the disease.

So what is the message here? To a large extent, type 2 diabetes can be prevented, and there are concrete changes you can make.

  • Change the way you eat: The U.S. diet is generally filled with processed, salty, sugary, fat-filled foods that increase our waist and decrease our lifespan. Starting today, eliminate sugar and you are halfway there. Increase your servings of fresh fruit and vegetables to a minimum of five servings a day. A good rule of thumb when making simple changes to your diet is to eat as little as possible from a bag or a box. Snacks can be okay, but portion out the correct amount (as indicated in the nutritional information) and put the box away. Another guideline is to eat food as close to its original state as possible. Eat an apple instead of apple sauce or apple juice.
  • Drink more water: Hydrate properly to keep your organs flushed and clean. Many people mistake thirst for hunger, so whenever you feel hungry, drink a full glass of water and take a moment to see if you are still hungry.
  • Add exercise to every day: You needn’t run ten miles a day to get exercise. Small changes can make a big difference, especially if you are struggling with your weight and just getting started. Lifestyle changes like taking the stairs, parking in the farthest spot from the door to a store, or playing with your kids outside every day all count as exercise. Starting a program of daily walking, just five minutes a day to start, working up to 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can make huge changes in your weight, energy, and sense of well-being. Just 30 minutes of not sitting a day can make exponential changes in your life.

You cannot prevent family history for yourself, but you can begin to make changes for your children and grandchildren. The American Diabetes Association has developed a quick type 2 diabetes risk test. Take a moment to find out if you are at risk, then start making changes if you need to.

Image by Melissa J via Flickr


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