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Type 2 diabetes is a disease that affects the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, leading to high blood sugar levels.

“Although genetic factors play a part, the foods we eat significantly shape type 2 diabetes risk,” says Osama Hamdy, MD, PhD, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at the Joslin Diabetes Center and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. WebMD spoke with Hamdy about how reading food labels can help you reduce your risk of developing this debilitating disease.

First, how serious a problem is type 2 diabetes?

It’s very serious. And it’s getting worse. It’s estimated that nearly 29.1 million Americans (9.3% of the total population) have diabetes. About a quarter of those people do not know they have diabetes even though high blood sugar levels may already be doing damage. Therefore, experts recommend anyone age 45 and older should have a simple blood test to check for diabetes.

Those numbers are very alarming. Type 2 diabetes is a devastating disease that causes damage to many organs in the body. It’s the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, and leg amputations in the U.S.  About two thirds of people with type 2 diabetes die from heart disease or stroke as a result of the disease. That’s why early diagnosis and treatment is critically important -- to help prevent these complications.

What role does diet play in type 2 diabetes?

The Diabetes Prevention Program proved that diet plays a crucial role. The study showed that lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, can reduce the odds of developing diabetes by 58%. That’s better than medications can do. Clearly, by making healthy lifestyle choices, including a healthier diet, you can go a long way to reducing your risk.

Let’s talk about food labels. How can they help guide people toward the healthiest choice?

By far the most important information on a food label is calories. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing diabetes substantially. Being just 10 to 20 pounds overweight can trigger type 2 diabetes, especially among people with positive family history. On the other hand, losing excess weight can reduce the risk significantly. Seven seems to be the magic number. People who are overweight or obese and lose just 7% of their body weight reduce the danger of developing diabetes by 58%.

We all know losing weight is difficult. How can food labels help?

The only way to maintain a healthy weight is to balance the calories you consume with those you expend. To lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than you expend. Food labels can be very helpful for determining caloric intake. But there’s one caveat. Calories are listed per serving. So it’s essential to look at the label to see what a serving size is. You may be surprised to discover that a package of chips you typically finish yourself contains two or three servings. How many calories you need depends in part on how active you are. 

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