You may know that your chances of having diabetes go up if you’re overweight, don’t exercise, and have high blood pressure. But did you know your odds can also be tied to your race and ethnicity — even your family’s country of origin?
Everyone is different, and there are many things that can affect your health and whether you get diabetes — your weight and age, how active you are, and other conditions you have. But research does show that it’s more common in certain groups.
What the Stats Show
Pacific Islanders and American Indians, for example, have the highest rates of diabetes among the five racial groups counted in the U.S. Census. They’re more than twice as likely to have the condition as whites, who have about an 8% chance of having it as adults. African-Americans and Asian-Americans also face higher odds.
Even within the same race, your ethnicity can matter, too. Asian Indians are 2-3 times as likely to get diabetes as Korean-Americans are. Far fewer Alaska Natives have it than American Indians in southern Arizona.
Among Hispanics, who are of different races, 1 in 7 Puerto Rican-Americans have diabetes, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 Cuban-Americans.
Reasons for Differences
Researchers think your genes, diet, culture, and physical differences all can play a role.
Body type. Being overweight or obese seriously raises your chances for type 2 diabetes. But just as important is how much of your weight comes from fat and where you carry it in your body.
Asians generally have more body fat than whites of the same height and weight. They also carry more of it in the belly. That “deep” fat is more harmful than the fat under the skin in the buttocks or thighs, because it’s more apt to make you resistant to insulin. That leads to high blood sugar levels, which makes your chance of having diabetes go up.
Body chemistry. Research shows that African-Americans tend to have less potassium than whites do. The mineral, which comes in bananas, yogurt, and other foods, helps the body keep the right levels of fluid. Too little potassium raises your odds of having diabetes. At the same time, African-Americans, on average, may be better than whites at making insulin, a hormone that helps keep blood sugar levels stable.
A study of middle schoolers in New York found that Asian-Americans tended to have much higher levels of a type of fat called triglyceride, compared with whites and Hispanics, while African-Americans had much lower levels. High levels of triglycerides, which you can get from eating too many carbs, makes you more prone to diabetes.
Diet and culture. Where and how you live can matter a lot, too. Chinese-Americans have diabetes at greater numbers than those living in rural China, which researchers blame in part on high-fat, high-sugar Western diets. The same is true for Japanese-Americans, compared with the Japanese.
A recent study found that among Mexican-American children, diabetes rates tended to go up the more they embrace U.S. culture. Researchers think it’s possibly because more Americanized children may eat fast food more often and get less exercise. And American Indian children, who have the highest obesity rate of any racial or ethnic group, are 7 times more likely to have diabetes than their white peers.
Your genes. For all the differences across races and ethnicities, most research has found that genes play a relatively small role in diabetes risks. The same habits and conditions that raise your odds apply to everyone, no matter your background. Case in point: In the past 3 decades in China, diabetes has gone from an uncommon condition to a public health crisis. Not because the Chinese themselves have changed, but because their eating habits and lifestyles have become unhealthier with their growing wealth.
What You Can Do
No matter who you are, you can take steps to prevent or lower your chances of diabetes:
- Exercise regularly — at least 150 minutes a week of moderate workouts.
- Watch what you eat. Cut sugar, saturated fats, and salt. Add leafy green veggies, whole grains, and salmon and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Keep your weight in a healthy range.
- See your doctor for regular checkups.
- Check out cooking classes, health education, or support programs to build good habits.