Healthy diet may reduce risk regardless of genetics

By Staff 9 Min Read

  • A new study found that a healthy diet may produce lower blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in men regardless of any genetic predisposition to the condition.
  • The study examined nearly 1,600 men in Finland who did not have type 2 diabetes and who went through a food questionnaire and a blood glucose test.
  • Experts say many of the societal and personal risks of type 2 diabetes are preventable by adjustment of lifestyle and dietary habits.

Following a healthy diet based on recommended nutrition levels may help protect against high blood sugar and reduce type 2 diabetes risk regardless of a person’s genetic predisposition, according to a new study in Finland.

The study, authored by researchers at the University of Eastern Finland, examined data from the Metabolic Syndrome in Men (METSIM) cohort. After excluding METSIM participants with missing data, their analysis included nearly 1,600 men in Finland between the ages of 51 and 85 who previously did not have type 2 diabetes.

The participants filled out a food-frequency questionnaire and took a two-hour oral glucose tolerance test during 2016–2018. Researchers in the present study assessed this data alongside their risk levels for type 2 diabetes by drawing from 76 genetic variants that were associated with that risk.

Two diet patterns were identified: healthy and unhealthy. The healthy one consisted of vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, whole grains, unsweetened and low fat yogurt, and potatoes, among other products. The unhealthy diet was high in foods like fried potatoes, processed meats, baked sweets and candy, refined grains, high fat and sweetened dairy products, and ready-made meals.

Researchers concluded that following a healthy diet was associated with lower blood glucose levels and the same positive impact on reducing type 2 diabetes risk regardless of genetic factors.

Medical News Today spoke with Sebnem Unluisler, a genetic engineer and chief longevity officer at the London Regenerative Institute who was not involved in the research. Unluisler said that the study could have some optimistic takeaways about a dietary effect on genetic predisposition for type 2 diabetes, but there are also some limits to the sampled population.

“This implies that if parents with a high genetic risk maintain a healthy diet and pass these habits to their children, the children could have a lower risk of developing diabetes than their parents,” Unluisler said. “However, the study might have limitations if it did not include a diverse range of ethnicities, income levels, or geographic locations, as these factors can influence dietary habits and genetic risks.”

“Genetic predispositions to type 2 diabetes can vary significantly between regions and ethnic groups, with certain populations, such as Asian and Africans, showing higher genetic risks,” she explained. “These insights highlight the importance of personalized dietary advice and public health strategies to effectively reduce diabetes risk across different populations.”

– Sebnem Unluisler

The study also only included men, so it’s unclear if the findings could apply to women, which is important due to sex differences in type 2 diabetes development and progression.

Melanie Murphy Richter, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the director of communications for the nutrition company Prolon, who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today that the study’s findings support the idea that type 2 diabetes can often by shaped by factors within a society’s control, like diet, exercise, and socioeconomic conditions:

“By promoting healthy lifestyles and addressing environmental factors, we have the potential to mitigate diabetes risk and improve public health outcomes significantly. Regarding future generations, the study suggests that diet can effectively reduce the risk of diabetes independent of genetic predisposition.

This implies that adopting healthy eating habits could potentially improve the health outcomes of subsequent generations. For instance, a child who follows a healthy diet may have a lower risk of diabetes compared to their parents who did not prioritize healthy eating.”

“While genetic components, including those influencing insulin production, can increase susceptibility to type 2 diabetes, the disease is highly modifiable, manageable, and even reversible through interventions in diet and lifestyle. Notably, diet and lifestyle choices can influence epigenetics, potentially altering gene expression passed down to future generations,” Richter explained.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, and exercise and diet, along with medication, can help people manage it. There are two types of risk factors: some you can modify, and some you might not be able to modify. The generally non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • family history of the disease
  • race: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, or Pacific Islanders all have a higher risk for type 2 diabetes
  • being over 45 years old
  • a history of gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy
  • depression
  • having a baby that weighs over 9 pounds at birth
  • having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Some typically modifiable or preventable risk factors include:

  • a sedentary lifestyle with little to no exercise
  • hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • obesity or being overweight
  • heart or blood vessel disease and stroke
  • low levels of “good” cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
  • high levels of the fats called triglycerides
  • an unhealthy diet

Sometimes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other risk factors listed as modifiable can be hereditary or a result of other health conditions that cannot be avoided. However, experts say healthy diet changes and managing your modifiable risk factors can benefit anyone.

Richter said that before the 1960s, type 2 diabetes was not nearly as common, but mass production of processed food had a huge impact on the global rates of the condition.

“Its prevalence surged with the global adoption of the Western diet rich in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and animal proteins, contributing to the widespread rise in obesity and diabetes. Factors like familial dietary habits passed down through generations and socioeconomic conditions affecting access to diabetes-promoting foods also play significant roles in its development,” Richter said. “Diets high in refined sugars, processed foods, and animal proteins (high in saturated fats), typical of many Western countries, have been linked to higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. In fact, we’ve seen the onset of diabetes emerge in countries like Mexico, China, and India after beginning to adopt Western eating styles.”

Richter added that the Finnish study’s findings are not at all surprising.

“Type 2 diabetes primarily stems from diet and lifestyle choices influenced by the widespread availability of processed foods and the promotion — and glorification — of unhealthy habits. Despite this understanding, it’s often perceived in healthcare circles as a lifelong condition necessitating medication. While medications are vital for some, many individuals can effectively modify or even reverse this condition through dietary adjustments and lifestyle changes, often reducing or eliminating their need for medications over time,” Richter said. “Encouragingly, healthy habits can be passed down through generations, highlighting the critical importance of early nutrition education and government-led initiatives to ensure all communities can access and afford nutritious foods. These efforts should be central in research and health discussions surrounding type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions influenced by diet and lifestyle choices.”

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