Poor Quality Diet Significantly Raises Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
June 17, 2022
Poor Quality Diet Significantly Raises Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest public health issues. About 1 in 10 Americans have type 2 diabetes and a third have pre-diabetes, which if left untreated will become type 2, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is: Eating a healthy diet can lower your risk.

Type 2 diabetes is a serious disease with grim complications such as nerve damage, vision problems, kidney disease, skin conditions, lower limb amputations, hearing impairment, sleep apnea, dementia and heart disease – the leading cause of death in the U.S. 

And while there is a significant genetic component to developing type 2 diabetes, it’s largely a lifestyle disease. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, quitting smoking and eating a healthy diet can help forestall or even prevent type 2 diabetes. 

Although all the lifestyle factors are important, let’s focus on nutrition, as the quality of your diet has a huge effect on your type 2 diabetes risk. In fact, poor diet is associated with a 30 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes, regardless of genetics, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine.

To lower your risk for type 2 diabetes, Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends choosing: 

  • Whole grains and whole grain products over refined and highly processed grains
  • Healthy fats over saturated fats
  • Lean protein over red meat and processed meats
  • Tea, coffee and water over sugary drinks (like sodas and juices) and alcohol

“Unfortunately, most Americans don’t follow these basic tenants,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Many Americans reach for processed and ultra-processed foods instead of whole foods because they’re more affordable and convenient than whole foods.”

Americans are also eating more ultra-processed foods, according to New York University. Here are some examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • Flavored breakfast cereals and yogurt
  • Salty snacks like potato and corn chips 
  • Frozen potato flakes, hash browns, French fries, egg rolls, pizza
  • Sugary beverages such as soda, juice, sports drinks
  • Canned items like soups, vegetables, condensed milk
  • Packaged desserts such as candy, pastries, cookies

About 70 percent of foods in American supermarkets are either processed or ultra-processed. These foods are made from substances extracted from whole foods -- mostly unhealthy fats, starches and sugars. As the whole foods are processed, they’re stripped of nutrients and fiber. And to make them taste appealing, manufacturers often add salt, sugar, unhealthy fats, artificial flavorings, flavor enhancers and emulsifiers. 

“Many processed and ultra-processed foods are just empty calories,” says Kaminetsky. “Foods without nutrients are worthless. If they lack fiber, they’re not filling. Flavor enhancers can increase your appetite and lead to weight gain. Emulsifiers can alter gut bacteria and raise your risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

A small study that compared the effects an ultra-processed diet and whole food diet had on caloric intake and weight gain found an association between an ultra-processed diet and an increased intake of calories, carbohydrates, fats, and weight gain, according to a study published in Cell Metabolism. And a study published in The BMJ found a link between a diet high in ultra-processed foods and a higher risk for coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease.

“If you want to lower your risk for type 2 diabetes, my suggestion is to take a hard look at your diet. Chances are, it needs to be cleaned up – at least to some degree,” says Kaminetsky. “An easy way to do this is to adopt a plant-based diet.”

Don’t confuse a plant-based diet with a vegetarian diet. Foods that comprise a plant-based diet include: 

  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Whole grains 
  • Legumes 
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds 
  • Coffee 
  • Tea 
  • Some animal products such as eggs, meat, dairy, fish and poultry 

Eating a plant-based diet is associated with staving off type 2 diabetes, particularly if you’re generally healthy, according to a study published in Diabetologia

Researchers don’t fully understand how a plant-based diet helps but they found a correlation between eating a diet rich in polyphenol foods such as fruits, vegetables, coffee and legumes with a lower risk of diabetes. 

Conversely, those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes during the study had a lower intake of plant-based foods and were more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, be taking medication to control blood pressure and cholesterol, have a family history of diabetes and be less physically active.

“Adding more plant-based foods into your diet is fairly easy,” says Kaminetsky. “However, you should still talk to your primary care doctor before making changes to your diet and might interfere with medications.”

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan that can better focus on limiting or preventing type 2 diabetes. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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