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The #1 Cause of Diabetes, According to Doctors

This bad habit can lead you down the road to the destructive chronic disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Diabetes has been described as a silent epidemic. Last year, it killed three times as many people as COVID-19. Too many people still consider diabetes a childhood disease beyond our control; the fact is, type 2 diabetes generally develops in adulthood, as a result of simple choices you make every day. 

So what can you do to reduce your risk? A lot, starting with avoiding the #1 cause of type 2 diabetes, as doctors told us. Read on to find out more—and to further ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID and Didn't Know It.

1

What Is Diabetes?

doctor with glucometer and insulin pen device talking to male patient at medical office in hospital
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Diabetes is the body's inability to process sugar (glucose). Normally, when a non-diabetic person consumes sugar, their pancreas releases an enzyme called insulin to convert sugar to energy. In a diabetic person, the pancreas either doesn't make insulin, or the body becomes resistant to it. As a result, blood sugar builds up in the arteries, damaging them. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, blindness, poor circulation, and even amputation.

Type 1 diabetes, once called "juvenile diabetes," can develop at any age, and spontaneously. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes, however, is exploding in the United States—experts predict that one in 10 people will have diabetes by the year 2045—and it's directly connected to diet and lifestyle choices. 

2

What Is The #1 Cause Of Diabetes?

hamburger or cheeseburger, deep-fried squid rings, french fries, drink and ketchup on wooden table
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There are many risk factors for type 2 diabetes, but chief among them is a poor diet high in processed foods and added sugar. When the body is swamped with sugar (and many processed foods break down into sugar), it can become resistant to insulin.

"Diabetes is when your body cannot provide enough insulin to allow glucose into the hungry cells of your body," says Thomas Horowitz, DO, a family medicine specialist at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The best way to avoid it is to be on a diet that does not task your insulin supply." He recommends choosing foods that break down slowly or have limited sugar—for example, protein, whole grains and vegetables instead of refined grains or sweets. 

3

One Habit to Drop Immediately

drinking soda
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It's especially important to limit or avoid beverages with added sugar, like sugar-sweetened sodas."The sugar content of items commonly consumed can be very high," says Horowitz. "A Super Gulp soft drink consists of a handful of sugar. A can of soda is far more than your body may be able to handle."

4

Do This Instead

Mediterranean diet
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"A lot of the foods we eat are diabetogenic. What that means is they increase your risk for insulin resistance and diabetes," says Aaron Hartman, MD, a board-certified functional medicine and integrative medicine doctor in Richmond, Virginia, and assistant clinical professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Sugars are one diabetogenic food. Processed carbohydrates are another. The first rule of thumb if you want to prevent diabetes is to eat real food."

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein (especially fatty fish, like salmon) and good fats (like avocados, nuts and olive oil) may reduce your risk of diabetes and other chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer. 

RELATED: The #1 Cause of "Deadly" Cancer

5

Do This Too

fitness, sport, people and lifestyle concept

To reduce your diabetes risk or manage your diabetes, physical activity is key. "Exercise increases your muscles as well as insulin sensitivity," says Hartman. "Simple exercise is a great way to make your muscles sensitive to insulin and also make your body utilize your insulin levels better. This can be gentle movement, like walking."

"Any activity can improve insulin sensitivity and slow the progression to diabetes," says Kathleen Wyne, MD, Ph.D., an endocrinologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Seriously: Every little bit helps, whether you walk around the block, go for a light run, or fire up the treadmill. The American Diabetes Association advises doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) every week. And to get through life at your healthiest, don't miss these First Signs You Have a Serious Illness.