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Risk of Type 2 diabetes in the South Asian community

If you come from a South Asian background you are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is serious but the good news is that there are a number of ways you can reduce your risk of developing it.

Why is my ethnicity linked to Type 2 diabetes?

When we say South Asian we tend to mean people from an Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi background and research has told us that if you are from these ethnic groups, you are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. South Asian can also refer to people from neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal but at the moment we don't know as much about their specific risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. 

But what’s the link? People from South Asian backgrounds are more likely to store fat around their middle. This is known as visceral fat and it can build up around important organs like the liver and pancreas. Having too much of this type of fat is just one of the factors that can affect your health and increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. It can cause something called insulin resistance, which is when insulin can’t work properly leading to an increased chance of having high blood sugar levels.   

Along with your ethnicity, a number of other factors can also increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.  

Weight and risk of Type 2 diabetes

Maintaining a healthy weight is especially important if you are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. 

But what do we mean when we say healthy weight? 

For most adults a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) range is between 18.5 and 24.9.

Keeping an eye on your waist size is a good idea, too.  

A healthy waist size for most men is 94cm (37in). But if you’re South Asian, it should be less than:

  • 80cm (31.5in) for women (this applies to all women, regardless of ethnicity). 
  • 90cm (35in) for men

If your waist size and BMI are higher than you expected, there are some changes you can make to live a healthier lifestyle. Remember, if you’re from a South Asian background your risk of Type 2 diabetes increases at a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) of just 23 compared with 25 and over for other ethnicities. 

Family history and risk of Type 2 diabetes 

If you have a parent, sibling, grandparent or child with Type 2 diabetes, you’re more at risk of developing the condition. 

“As my mum, grandmother, grandfather, aunties and uncles all had Type 2 diabetes I was aware I was very high risk. I used the Know Your Risk tool on the Diabetes UK website and came out as high risk which shocked me into taking some action.” 

Asad Rahim, 23, student nurse

Your first step in taking action could be going to your GP surgery and asking for a simple blood test. 

Age and ethnicity 

If you’re South Asian, your risk of Type 2 diabetes increases from the age of 25 years. This is much younger than people from other ethnic backgrounds, such as White European where the risk increases from 40. 

The good news is that by doing more physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and eating well, you can reduce this risk. 

If you’re considering having a baby, it’s important to understand your risk of diabetes and to talk to your GP before conceiving. 

How to reduce your risk

Whilst you can’t do anything about your age and ethnicity, there are changes you can make to your lifestyle that can help reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It’s important to make changes right away and we have lots of ideas on how you can make them. 

Moving more

Try to include more exercise into your day-to-day routine by moving more often.

“After realising my grandma and aunty have diabetes, I am much more conscious of my diet and walk whenever I can. I probably walk for about an hour and half hours a day”. 

Khadijah Iqbal, 23, pharmacy student, Normanton 

You could try walking instead of taking the car or using the stairs instead of a lift. This could include walking with friends or family, gardening, dancing in your front room, or trying out local exercise classes. You don’t have to rush out and buy lots of expensive equipment or join a gym, but making small changes will help you see the benefits of a more active lifestyle really quickly. We have lots of ideas on how you can get fitter, faster. 

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to exercise, don’t panic. We have lots of hints and tips to get you started gently. 

Tips for moving more

Making healthier food choices

If you’re at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, it’s really important to make healthier food choices to help reduce your risk.

  • Eat more fruit and vegetables.
  • Lean protein, like fish, chicken, eggs, lentils, pulses and beans.
  • Choose unsweetened dairy products.
  • Choose healthier carbohydrates like wholegrain rice or chapatis.

Try to eat more foods that are associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes. These include:

  • wholegrain products – brown rice, brown bread and chapatis made from wholemeal flour.
  • fruits and vegetables (especially blueberries, grapes, apples, green leafy veg like spinach).
  • yoghurt and cheese.
  • tea and coffee (without added sugar).

Try to reduce how much you eat of foods that are associated with an increased risk:

  • red and processed meat – lamb, beef, doner meat, sausages, bacon.
  • potatoes (especially French fries)
  • refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, white pasta, white rice)
  • drinks with added sugar.

Foods such as Asian sweets, cakes, sugary desserts should be saved for special occasions, rather than be part of your everyday diet. Be mindful about your portion sizes when eating these types of foods. 

Making changes at home  

The good news is that there are lots of changes you can make yourself, like cooking meals at home and swapping healthy fats such as olive oil instead of ghee. Why not try taking tea without sugar and having one or two days per week where you eat a vegetarian meal, instead of meat?

Eating the right amount

As well as making healthy choices, it’s important to know how much to eat. One portion is counted as two heaped spoonfuls of cooked rice, however some people may require more or less than this amount, depending on their activity levels, weight, age, for example.

When it comes to protein, a serving is about the size of a deck of cards. If you’re eating lentils, like dhal, four heaped tablespoons of the cooked dish are counted as a serving size. 

Portion control can be tricky but we have lots of information designed to give you all the tools you need to make healthier decisions when it comes to deciding what to put on your plate.

Having a baby and risk of Type 2 

For South Asian women who are over 25 and planning a baby, knowing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is very important. 

If your risk is moderate or high then you should visit your GP and understand your risk as a first step. 

Many people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes won’t have any symptoms so it is important to find out if you have it, especially if you are hoping to get pregnant. With the right care there is no reason you can’t have a healthy pregnancy. It will need to be managed carefully by a specialist medical team otherwise there can be serious complications for the mother and baby. 

If you’re worried about your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes, help is at hand. You can call our helpline on 0345 123 2399 and get expert advice on all aspects of with diabetes. The helpline is for all people with diabetes, their friends or family, and people who are worried they might be at risk.

You could also make an appointment at your GP surgery and ask for a blood test, then be sure you follow up to discuss the results.

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