White Rice, Bacon, and Other Processed Foods Driving Up Type 2 Diabetes Rates

This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.

By Lisa Rapaport

Need a good reason to consume more whole grains and less processed meat? A new study offers fresh evidence that being more selective about your food choices may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The study, published in Nature Medicine, examined almost three decades of data on how 11 different dietary factors in 184 countries influenced the risk of type 2 diabetes. In 2018, the final year of data, researchers estimated that 14.1 million cases of type 2 diabetes worldwide were attributable to poor eating habits.

Three factors had a disproportionate impact on the risk of type 2 diabetes: not eating enough whole grains, consuming too much refined rice and wheat, and overconsumption of processed meat. Other factors like drinking too much fruit juice or not consuming enough nonstarchy vegetables didn’t appear to have as big an impact on type 2 diabetes risk, the analysis found.

“Our study suggests poor carbohydrate quality is a leading driver of diet-attributable type 2 diabetes globally,” senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and dean for policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts in Boston, said in a statement. “These new findings reveal critical areas for national and global focus to improve nutrition and reduce devastating burdens of diabetes.”

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes develops when the body can’t make or use enough of the hormone insulin to help convert sugars in the foods we eat into energy, causing sugar to accumulate in the bloodstream instead. Some of the main risk factors for type 2 diabetes are being overweight or obese, physically inactive, or over 45 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some of the best ways to prevent type 2 diabetes are maintaining a healthy body weight, being physically active, and eating a healthy diet, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Rates of Type 2 Diabetes Are Increasing Worldwide

The new study tracked type 2 diabetes cases from 1990 to 2018 and found cases climbed in every single one of the 184 countries examined.

Certain regions where diets tend to be rich in red and processed meat and potatoes, including Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, had the largest number of type 2 diabetes cases associated with dietary factors, the analysis found.

Other regions where diets tend to include high consumption of sugary drinks and processed meats, and less whole grains, including Latin America and the Caribbean, also had a higher proportion of type 2 diabetes cases linked to dietary factors.

By contrast, regions where diets tend not to include many refined grains or processed meats, like South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, had fewer cases of type 2 diabetes associated with dietary factors, the analysis found.

There are several reasons that a typical Western diet — rich in red meat, processed foods, fried foods, sweets, sugary drinks, and saturated fats — might increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

For one thing, the lack of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other healthy compounds in these foods can increase inflammation in the body, contribute to obesity, and make it harder to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, Heller says. On top of this, eating lots of these less healthy foods can crowd out other healthier options that can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight and manage blood sugar levels, Heller adds.

The good news is even small changes to your diet can help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, Heller says. Some good options to lower your risk can include:

Replacing sugary cereals and breakfast foods with products made from whole grains
Subbing brown rice in place of refined white rice
Opting for plant-based proteins like beans, soy, and nuts instead of red and processed meats
Filling your plate with lots of whole fruits and vegetables

Over time, these small changes can lead to weight loss, more energy, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and other improvements to your health, Heller says. You just have to stick with it and do the best you can to maintain small changes over time, Heller advises. “The results do not happen overnight.”

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