The food choices we make every day greatly influence our risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The power of food was revealed in a study of more than 20,000 people from the Netherlands, published earlier this year in the European Journal of Nutrition. It showed that a diet heavy in junk food—characterized by soft drinks, fries, and chips—increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 70 percent.
“Diet is of primary importance,” says Dr. Isaac Eliaz, medical director of Amitabha Medical Clinic in California, who was not involved with the study. “If someone wants to reduce their risk of getting type 2 diabetes, dietary changes have to be a part of the strategy, together with exercise and stress management.”
To start eating better today, watch out for these four types of food that are known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Highly Processed Carbohydrates
Heavily processed carbohydrates, such as those made with white flour, white sugar, and white rice, are essentially whole foods stripped of important bran and fiber, as well as healthy vitamins and minerals.
“Calories devoid of nutrients, with high sugar content, are the primary offenders,” says Eliaz. “As much as possible, these foods should be eliminated.”
Because they are so easy to digest, these foods can cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
According to a 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a diet high in heavily processed carbohydrates increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 21 percent in Chinese women, compared with those who ate a diet rich in whole foods.
To reduce your risk, limit your intake of foods made with processed carbohydrates, such as breads, muffins, cakes, crackers, and pasta, in favor of whole-grain options.
“Sugary beverages like sodas, sweet teas, and lemonade are linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes,” says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., and author of the book Diabetes Weight Loss: Week by Week, “presumably because the excess calories lead to weight gain and because the sugar load might increase insulin resistance.”
According to a 2010 study in Diabetes Care, drinking one to two sugary drinks per day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 26 percent, compared with having less than one serving a month.
One of the best ways to minimize the effect of sugar on your health is to limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit drinks.
To stay hydrated, drink more water. Also, avoid loading up your coffee or tea with sugar and cream.
Saturated and Trans Fats
Unhealthy saturated and trans fats can increase cholesterol levels in the blood, and high cholesterol is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats appear in packaged baked goods and fried foods in restaurants, while saturated fats can be found in fatty meats, butters, and full-fat milk and cheese.
To avoid saturated fats, Weisenberger offers the following suggestions: “Cook and bake with olive and canola oils, snack on nuts instead of sweets, choose lean meats and poultry without the skin, and dress salads with vinaigrette instead of blue cheese dressings.”
Red and Processed Meats
Red meat and processed red meat are both linked to type 2 diabetes. Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and deli meats are particularly bad because of their high levels of sodium and nitrites.
In a 2011 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that one 3-ounce serving per day of red meat—about the size of a deck of cards—increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 19 percent. For an even smaller amount of processed red meat, the increase was 51 percent.
Switching to other sources of protein can improve your health, says Eliaz. “Wild Alaskan salmon, small fish such as sardines, small portions of organic poultry and eggs, and occasional grass fed beef can all be incorporated into a healthy diet with a predominance of vegetables.”