• Diabetes is Australia’s fastest growing chronic condition in Australia and type 2 diabetes accounts for 85 per cent of all diabetes. (E+/Getty Images)Source: E+/Getty Images
It's time to separate myth from fact and talk home truths about the practical things you can do to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Yasmin Noone

14 Jul 2020 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2020 - 12:09 PM

We’re constantly reminded of the importance of being ‘healthy’ – eating the ‘right’ kinds of foods and making the ‘right’ lifestyle choices – to lower our risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

But how many of us actually know the specifics on what being ‘healthy’ is and understand, exactly, what we should eat daily to decrease our risk of type 2 diabetes?

Given that diabetes is Australia’s fastest-growing chronic condition and type 2 diabetes accounts for 85 per cent of all diabetes, it’s worth knowing the facts.

“Tackling multiple risk factors, instead of concentrating on one certain lifestyle factor, should be the cornerstone for reducing the global burden of type 2 diabetes.”

Myth 1: To decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes, all you have to do is improve your diet

Fact: It's more complicated than that

A new international study, published in the European journal Diabetologia today, shows that people with the healthiest lifestyle have a 75 per cent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those with the least healthy lifestyle.

Chinese researchers came to this conclusion after analysing 14 studies based in the USA, Asia, Europe, Australia and the rest of Oceania, involving over a million participants. 

Although the study is vague on what a ‘healthy lifestyle’ is specifically, it does state that physical activity, diet quality and sleep pattern may affect your weight. On top of weight, your smoking and drinking habits also influence your risk.

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The study stresses that although weight plays a dominant role in the risk of type 2 diabetes, “its individual association with the condition was found to be weaker than that of combined lifestyle factors”.

“Tackling multiple risk factors, instead of concentrating on one certain lifestyle factor, should be the cornerstone for reducing the global burden of type 2 diabetes.”

Myth 2: Sugar directly causes diabetes

Fact: There's no direct association

Dr Alan Barclay – Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia - tells SBS that there’s no evidence to suggest that sugar directly causes type 2 diabetes. “There is no association between sugar consumption and type 2 diabetes,"  Dr Barclay says. "We need to kill off that myth.”

However, Dr Barclay says, there is an association between soft drink consumption and type 2 diabetes. “But there’s more than just [highly refined] sugar in soft drinks. The association could also be to do with the sort of lifestyle that goes along with drinking lots of soft drink and eating fast food.”

He explains that all sugars are a form of carbohydrate. Simple carbs (or simple sugars) include fructose, glucose and lactose. But the other form of carbohydrate is a complex carbohydrate or starch. “It’s what is found in your bread, breakfast cereals, rice and pasta... A high starch diet may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.”

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Myth 3: You have to lose masses of weight to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes

Fact: A 5 per cent drop in weight can do wonders

Although sugar doesn't directly cause type 2 diabetes, obesity is a risk factor. However, you don’t need to go on a fad diet and drop massive amounts of weight to lower your risk of developing the condition. 

“Losing five to 15 per cent of your initial body weight will stop people with pre-diabetes from developing type 2 diabetes,” says Dr Barclay. “You can lose weight by consuming about 2000 kilojoules less each day and lose about half a kilo a week to get to your goal.”

On top of weight loss, it may also be important to eat foods that raise blood glucose levels slowly.

Dr Barclay describes this diet as one that is rich in vegetables (of all different colours) and certain fruits. “Melons tend to be quite low in fibre and tend to raise blood sugar levels quite rapidly. Temperate fruits like apples, pears and peaches, stone fruits and berries are the better options for fruit.”

He adds that your diet should also include a lot of legumes, wholegrain cereals, reduced dairy (to cut down on calories), quality seafood, lean meat, and healthy fats.

The NHMRC Australian Guidelines recommends healthy adults shouldn’t drink any more than two standard drinks on any day to cut the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

Myth 4: Everyone can take steps to completely eradicate their risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Fact: There's no such guarantee with diabetes

CEO of Diabetes Australia, Professor Greg Johnson, explains that the more healthy behaviours you demonstrate – maybe you don’t drink much and don’t smoke, get lots of exercise and have a BMI in the normal range – the more likely you are to reduce your personalised risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

However, there’s no general guarantee against diabetes, especially if you have a genetic precondition to developing type 2 diabetes. “Adopting healthy behaviours to address risk factors does not guarantee that a person will not develop type 2 diabetes.

“Genetics and ethnicity do play an important part in the risk of type 2 diabetes. People of Chinese, South Asian, Pacific Island and Aboriginal and Torres Strait island ethnicities are all at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” says Professor Johnson.

“When it comes to people who are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes there is no one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone and people should be talking to their GP or an appropriate healthcare professional about the approach that will work for them.”

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