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Jan 19, 2015 04:31 PM EST

Healthy Diet Linked to Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Women of Color

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New research suggests that consuming a healthy diet was associated with reduced risk for type 2 diabetes among women in all racial and ethnic groups but conferred an even greater benefit for Asian, Hispanic, and black women.

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital found that a healthy overall diet can play a vital role in preventing type 2 diabetes, particularly in minority women who have elevated risks of the disease.

"As the incidence of type 2 diabetes continues to increase at an alarming rate worldwide, these findings can have global importance for what may be the largest public health threat of this century," Jinnie Rhee, lead author of the study, said in a statement.  

It's estimated that about 29.1 million people in the U.S. and 47 million around the world have diabetes. The World Health Organization projects that diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death in 2030. The disease, which is often related to excess body weight and physical inactivity, is more common in African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, and the aged. Previous studies have shown links between diet and risk of type 2 diabetes, but most have been conducted in predominately white populations.

For the study, researchers analyzed data on diet in 156,030 non-Hispanic white women and 2,026 Asian, 2,053 Hispanic, and 2,307 black women in the Nurses' Health Study and Nurses' Health Study II. The women were followed for up to 28 years and filled out diet questionnaires every four years.

The researchers created a dietary diabetes risk reduction score that included components associated with type 2 diabetes risk. A higher score indicated a healthier overall diet--one with lower intake of saturated and trans fats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red and processed meats; lower glycemic index foods; and higher intakes of cereal fiber, polyunsaturated fats, coffee, and nuts.

Results showed a protective association of similar magnitude between a healthy overall diet and type 2 diabetes risk in all racial and ethnic group. A healthy diet was associated with a 48 percent lower risk of diabetes in white, 42 percent in Asian, 55 percent in Hispanic, and 32 percent in black women.

However, because women of color were initially at higher risk of diabetes than white women, in terms of the actual number of avoidable cases, a healthier diet had greater benefit for women of color. The analysis showed that 5.3 cases of diabetes can be prevented per 1,000 white women per year with a healthier overall diet compared with 8.0 cases that can be prevented per 1,000 women of color per year.

"This finding confirms that we are all in the same boat when it comes to preventing type 2 diabetes by diet. Our next challenge is to put this knowledge into practice so everyone can benefit," said Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair, Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan.

The findings are detailed in the journal Diabetes Care.

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