Diabetes: reduce your risk of getting it

More than 3 million people in the UK are diagnosed with diabetes, and it's thought that over half a million more people may have type 2 diabetes and not know it. People from some cultures, including African Caribbean communities, are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than the rest of the population. Find out how to reduce your risk.

Diabetes is a condition in which the body can’t deal properly with glucose (sugar) in food. There are two main types of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body produces no insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the body does produce insulin but not enough, or the insulin it does produce doesn't work properly.

People from African and African Caribbean communities are three times more likely than the general population to develop type 2 diabetes.

It’s not clear why diabetes is more common in these communities, but it’s thought to be linked to diet, genetic differences in processing and storing fat, and unequal access to health services.

Diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. If it isn't treated, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, problems with the eyes and kidneys, and damage to the arteries. However, there are ways to reduce your risk and to control diabetes if you have it.

What are the risk factors?

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is not caused by any lifestyle factors and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Type 1 diabetes usually develops in people under 40, although it can occur in older people. If you have type 1 diabetes, you need to look after your health very carefully. It's treated with insulin injections, a healthy balanced diet and physical activity. Caring for your health will also make treating your diabetes easier and minimise your risk of developing complications – find out about living with type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

There are certain risk factors that make getting type 2 diabetes more likely. You are more at risk if:

  • you are over 40, although people of any age can develop it, and people of African or African Caribbean, Chinese or south Asian descent are at higher risk of developing it at a younger age  
  • you have a close family member (parent, brother or sister) with diabetes
  • you’re overweight with a waist size of more than 80cm (31.5 inches) if you're a woman, 94cm (37 inches) if you're a man, or 89cm (35 inches) if you're a south Asian man
  • you have ever had high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke
  • you’re a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome and you're overweight
  • you’re a woman and you’ve had gestational (pregnancy) diabetes or given birth to a baby over 10lbs (4.5 kilos)
  • you've been told you have impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glycaemia

Type 2 diabetes can occur at any age, and often develops in white people over the age of 40. It affects people of African, African Caribbean, Chinese or South Asian descent up to 10 years earlier than white Europeans. 

What are the symptoms?

  • feeling very thirsty
  • producing excessive amounts of urine (going to the toilet a lot) 
  • tiredness
  • weight loss and muscle wasting (loss of muscle bulk)  

Other symptoms can include:

  • itchiness around the vagina or penis, or getting thrush regularly as the excess sugar in your urine encourages infections 
  • blurred vision, caused by the build-up of glucose in the lens of your eye 

"If people have any of these symptoms, they might think it’s because they’re working too hard or staring at a computer a lot,” says Jenne Patel, Diabetes UK equality and diversity manager. “If you're in the right age range and have any of these symptoms, go for a check-up.”

Take a self-assessment to find out your risk of diabetes.

Reduce your risk

The main ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes are eating a healthy, balanced diet and doing at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week. In addition, you should do physical activity to improve muscle strength at least two days a week.

“People can still follow their traditional diet, but they can do it more healthily,” says Jenne. She also says that African and African Caribbean food tends to be higher in fat and sugar. “For example, instead of frying with a lot of oil, use just a teaspoon. Or try baking and steaming instead.”

A healthy diet is one that is low in fat, salt and sugar and contains at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Read more about how to have a healthy diet and healthy recipes for people with diabetes.  

Healthtalkonline has articles and videos of people talking about their experiences of being diagnosed with diabetes, living with diabetes and diabetes treatment.

For information about living with diabetes, call the Diabetes UK Careline on 0345 123 2399.

Page last reviewed: 08/07/2014

Next review due: 08/07/2016

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