Can we blame Diabetes on our genes?

2011-09-22 00:00

IN South Africa it is estimated that there are already four to six million people with diabetes. The World Health Organisation predicts that this figure will triple in the next 15 years. All race groups are affected, but the Indian population seems to have the highest propensity for developing this disease. Today we take a look at whether we are at the mercy of our genes or if we can, in fact, reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes.

Worldwide we see diabetes on a sharp increasing trend. The most alarming rate of increase is in developing countries and may be attributed (at least in part) to our increasingly Westernised lifestyles. People are eating a markedly higher percentage of refined foods that are high in fat and sugar, while eating fewer fruits, vegetables, grains and fibre. This change in eating behaviour coupled with reduced physical activity in our modern world is a recipe for health disasters.

The interplay of genetics and environmental factors is the same as we have previously discussed with cancer, heart disease and obesity. Although there is a genetic link to developing diabetes, it is not a given that everyone genetically at risk will develop the disease. This is clearly seen in sets of identical twins. Although identical twins share the same genetic code, they do not automatically share the disease. A poor lifestyle (typically very little exercise, inadequate fibre intake and high-fat, high-sugar foods) may act as the trigger to developing diabetes in an individual who is genetically susceptible to the disease.

If we know what to look for, it is possible to identify many precursors and warning bells for the most prevalent form of diabetes, called Type 2 diabetes. The good news is that these risk factors (and, in fact, the disease itself) are very responsive to diet and exercise. If we can eliminate the risk factors, we will be able to avert many cases of diabetes.

To evaluate your risk of diabetes, there are certain risk factors to take note of.

• Being overweight. Research has shown that obese women have a 20 times greater chance of developing diabetes. Losing and keeping off even a small amount of weight makes a great impact on improving your health. It reduces the risk of many diseases besides diabetes, including heart disease and high blood pressure.

• No physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle is so easy to adopt in today’s modern world and needs to be fought against at every opportunity. Office workers need to pay extra attention to avoid the default of sedentary eight-hour days, followed by sedentary TV-watching evenings. Walk instead of drive whenever you can, purposefully plan activity into your weekends and family times, take advantage of our hot weather and swim as often as you get the chance.

• Co-existing health hazards. Having a high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insulin resistance all increase the likelihood of developing diabetes. Take steps to correct these hazards and don’t simply ignore them.

• Family history of diabetes. If you have immediate relatives (parents or siblings) with diabetes, your risk is increased and so improving your lifestyle is even more critical.

A big cause for concern is that the majority of people with diabetes remain undiagnosed. They are unaware of the disease and are not making any adjustments to delay its progression. Diabetes can be influenced either positively or negatively by diet and exercise. Eating a healthy balanced diet, including a wide variety of foods, is an important starting point.

Speak to your dietician for specific advice to help you on your journey to improved health and quality of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eatsmart@iburst.co.za

 

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