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Sept. 20, 2001 -- In light of the skyrocketing rate of diabetes in the U.S., new research showing that weight loss, regular exercise, not smoking, and other lifestyle changes can stave off diabetes offers a ray of hope.

In the new study, Harvard researchers found that more than 90% of the 3,300 women who developed diabetes over a 16-year study period were overweight, inactive, and smokers. Being overweight or obese was the most important diabetes risk predictor, followed by lack of exercise, the researchers report in a recent issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine.

"The study suggests that most of diabetes can be prevented through diet and exercise," researcher Frank B. Hu, MD, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, tells WebMD. "That's good news for most people, even those who are overweight and obese because people can reduce their risk by increasing exercise and eating a healthy diet.

"Maintaining a healthy weight is the most important way to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, [but that's] easier to say than do," he says.

Engaging in regular exercise is also easier said than done because our society has become more inactive, Hu says. "I think people have to be more conscious about activity patterns and have to increase the amount of activities in their daily life by doing more walking and climbing more stairs," he says. "Brisk walking for 30 minutes a day is the minimum required for the benefits of type 2 diabetes."

While the authors are not advocating drinking to teetotalers, the study also shows that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce diabetes risk.

About two-thirds of the nearly 15 million people with type 2 diabetes in the U.S. are overweight, according to the American Diabetes Association. This form of the disease occurs when the body does not properly respond to insulin. The body uses insulin, a hormone, to help regulate the blood level of glucose, or blood sugar.

Weight loss is considered the cornerstone of treatment in people with type 2 diabetes because it allows the body to better use insulin and thus lowers blood sugar. Out-of-control levels of blood sugar are responsible for many of the devastating side effects of diabetes.


The new data come from the ongoing Nurse's Health Study, which began in 1976. The researchers followed close to 85,000 female nurses who were free of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer at the beginning of the study.

"They followed a bunch of people over time and said these are the characteristics of people at high risk for type 2 diabetes," says John Buse, MD, director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

However, Buse says, earlier studies have had the same punch line. Intervention studies where participants began exercising and consuming a healthy diet have shown that such changes can reduce diabetes risk by 60%, he says. "The scariest thing about this paper is that just 3.4% of people fell into the low-risk group," he tells WebMD.

"I am an optimist, and my hope is that these recent studies that show diet and exercise work and that you can prevent diabetes will make healthcare professionals pay more than lip service to diet and exercise," he says "Hopefully doctors will encourage patients to work with dietitians and other healthcare professionals to develop programs and diets that work for them."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
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