Written by Xavier Toledo, BSc, Reviewed by Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, CDE
There are many risk factors for type 2 diabetes—and family history is one of them. If type 2 diabetes runs in your family, you may be at an increased risk of developing the disease. However, despite your genes, there are several things you can do to help prevent it.
Why Is This Important?
We regularly hear from individuals with a family history of type 2 diabetes—even if their blood sugar levels are within normal limits. Even if no one in your family seems to have the condition, there’s still a chance that at least one family member does. According to the CDC, around 20% of Americans with type 2 diabetes didn't even know they had the disease . Because of this, everyone should have an understanding of the following information.
Is Type 2 Diabetes Hereditary?
In short, “heredity” is the passing of physical and mental traits from parents to offspring. When a disease is considered “hereditary,” genes play a role in its onset, and offspring have the potential to inherit these disease-related genes from their parents. So if a disease runs in your family, this may be because inheritable disease-related genes at least partially cause the condition. According to the research, many believe that type 2 diabetes has a hereditary component—but it’s not so black and white.
Although there’s a strong belief that type 2 diabetes has a link to genetics, it’s difficult to pinpoint which genes are to blame. Since 1996, researchers have identified several genes that they believe play a role in the onset of type 2 diabetes. These genes are involved in various functions ranging from insulin production to glucose transport . Like the genes that determine our hair color, skin complexion, and so much more, we inherit these disease-related genes from our parents.
Despite these findings, it’s essential to remember that type 2 diabetes is a multifactorial disease. With that in mind, how do we know which is more significant in the onset of the condition: the genes we inherit or other factors (e.g., our lifestyle, environment, etc.)? To help answer that question, some researchers have turned their attention to twins.
Researchers love twin-based studies because fraternal twins share many of the same genes and identical twins share all of them. Because of this, studying these siblings helps us understand the role genetics plays in the onset of disease. When it comes to type 2 diabetes, the researchers of a 2015 study analyzed the data of around 34,000 twin pairs from several cohorts and discovered some striking findings. Depending on the cohort, if one identical twin had type 2 diabetes, 20-53% of the co-twins would also have it. On the other hand, if one fraternal twin had the disease, only 0-29% of the co-twins would have it as well . Findings like this suggest that type 2 diabetes does indeed have a genetic link- even if the connection is not fully understood.
Genetics aside, remember that genes aren’t the only thing we inherit from our parents. For better or for worse, children often adopt their family’s eating habits and exercise patterns. Because of this, it can be challenging to determine which to blame more for the inheritability of type 2 diabetes: genes or passed down behaviors.
How Can You Prevent Type 2 Diabetes If It Runs In Your Family?
According to a 2013 literature review, if you have a first-degree relative (i.e., a parent or sibling) with type 2 diabetes, you are three times more likely to develop the disease than someone without an affected first-degree relative. Furthermore, the same researchers claim that the lifetime risk of developing type 2 diabetes is 40% for those with one affected parent and 70% for those with two . However, as Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn's popular analogy goes, “genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger.” Even if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you still have the power to prevent its onset with your lifestyle choices. Just because you’re born with disease-related genes doesn't mean you’re destined to develop the condition.
If type 2 diabetes runs in your family, you can significantly decrease your risk of developing the condition by losing excess weight and getting adequate physical activity. According to the 2002 Diabetes Prevention Program trial, when people achieved a 7% reduction in body weight and engaged in at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, they reduced their incidence of type 2 diabetes by 58% .
Furthermore, it's essential to bring up food when discussing type 2 diabetes prevention. High in refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, and processed foods, the Standard American Diet can lead to insulin resistance, the root cause of type 2 diabetes. If you’d like to learn more about this, we explain the process in our previous post on preventing prediabetes. Research suggests that consuming a diet rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can prevent insulin resistance and thus reduce one's risk for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
So when should you start taking action? Of course, it’s worthwhile to improve your health at any stage in life. However, if you do so early on, you’ll dramatically decrease your odds of developing lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes. So if you know that type 2 diabetes runs in your family, start taking preventive measures as soon as possible.
Can Type 2 Diabetes Be Reversed?
If our name didn’t already give it away, reversing type 2 diabetes is indeed possible! If you have a loved one living with the condition, know that there may be hope for them.
We’ve helped hundreds of program members reverse their prediabetes and type 2 diabetes through a holistic approach incorporating plant-based nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction. After ten weeks in our program, members lose weight, lower their blood sugar, reduce or eliminate their diabetes medication, and regain control of their health. If you’re interested in learning more about our approach, check out our 10-Week Program.
If type 2 diabetes runs in your family, the best thing you can do is engage in proactive, preventative measures. Whether it’s fitting more exercise into your schedule or incorporating more plant-based meals into your diet, tweaks like these can go a long way when it comes to your health. Remember: prevention is key.
Additionally, if your family history puts you at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes, don’t forget that your relatives are in a similar boat. Because of this, don’t be afraid to make your prevention efforts a family affair.
Finally, if you or any of your loved ones are interested in learning more about how to prevent or reverse prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, we encourage you to check out our free starter guide.