Women’s Health: Good nutrition makes a dent in diabetes risk

Study of female nurses shows a healthy diet cuts by two-thirds the chances of developing the condition

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Now there’s even more evidence that a healthier diet can lower the risk of developing the most common form of diabetes.

Ninety per cent of people with diabetes have the type 2 form, which usually strikes in adulthood and is often associated with obesity. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or the body doesn’t use the hormone properly. This results in high levels of sugar in the blood, which over time can damage the kidneys, eyes, blood vessels and nerves.

Researchers from Simmons College and the Harvard Public School of Health in Boston looked at the association between diabetes risk and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which measures the quality of one’s diet through nine variables: fruit, vegetables, cereal fibre, nuts and soy, multivitamin use, moderate alcohol consumption, trans fat, the ratio of white to red meat and the ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fat.

The study involved 80,000 female nurses who completed food questionnaires four times over an 18-year period, noting how often they consumed various foods and portion sizes for the previous year. There were 5,100 new cases of type 2 diabetes during the study.

Women in the top quarter of AHEI scores had a 64 per cent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those in the bottom quarter. But the results aren’t just good news for those who consistently ate a healthy diet. Women who changed their score from low to high during the study saw a reduction in diabetes risk within four years.

“It is never too late to improve your diet,” says Teresa Fung, a registered dietitian and associate professor at Simmons College. “People who have been following a poor diet all their lives, if they change and improve their diet, within a few years they see some benefit.”

Fung adds that the AHEI was not specifically designed to look at diabetes, so there might be some dietary patterns out there that are even better for lowering diabetes risk.