More than 2 million people in the UK have diabetes, and people from some cultures, including African Caribbean communities, have a higher risk than the rest of the population.
Diabetes occurs when the body cannot properly process glucose (sugar) in food. People who identify as black Caribbean are up to three times more likely to develop diabetes than the general population, according to the Health Survey 2004.
Some estimates are higher. Diabetes UK says people from African Caribbean communities in the UK are five times more likely than white people to have diabetes.
It’s not clear why diabetes is more common in these communities, but it’s thought to be linked to diet, genetic differences in processing and storing fat and unequal access to health services.
Diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. If it isn’t treated, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, problems with the eyes and kidneys, and damage to the arteries. But there are ways to reduce your risk and to control diabetes if you have it.
What are the risk factors for diabetes?
There are two main types of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body produces no insulin. In type 2 diabetes, it produces insulin, but not enough. You are more at risk of getting diabetes if:
- a close member of your family (parent, brother or sister) has type 2 diabetes
- you’re overweight or your waist is more than 31.5 inches (80cm) if you’re a woman, more than 35 inches (89cm) if you’re an Asian man, and 37 inches (94cm) or more if you’re a white or black man
- you have high blood pressure or you’ve had a heart attack or stroke
- you’re a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome and you’re overweight
- you’re a woman and you’ve had gestational (pregnancy) diabetes
The more risk factors that apply to you, the greater your chances of becoming diabetic.
Type 1 diabetes usually develops in people under 40, although it can occur in older people. It’s treated with insulin injections, a healthy balanced diet and physical activity.
Type 2 diabetes can occur at any age. People from African Caribbean and South Asian communities are advised to get tested for diabetes if they are over 25 and have any of the risk factors. White people are advised to get tested for diabetes after the age of 40.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
- feeling very thirsty
- producing excessive amounts of urine (going to the toilet a lot)
- weight loss and muscle wasting (loss of muscle bulk)
Other symptoms can include:
- itchiness around the vagina or penis, or getting thrush regularly, because the excess sugar in your urine encourages infections
- blurred vision, caused by the lens of your eye becoming very dry
“If people have any of these symptoms they might think it’s because they’re working too hard or staring at a computer a lot,” says Jenne Dixit of Diabetes UK. “If you’re in the right age range and have any of these symptoms, go for a check-up.”
How to reduce your risk
The main ways to reduce your risk of diabetes are eating a healthy, balanced diet and doing at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.
“People can still follow their traditional diet, but they can do it more healthily,” says Jenne. She also says that African and African Caribbean food tends to be higher in fat and sugar. “For example, instead of frying with a lot of oil, use just a teaspoon. Or try baking and steaming instead.”
A healthy diet includes:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least 5 A DAY)
- plenty of rice, potatoes, pasta and bread (preferably wholegrain)
- milk and dairy foods
- meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, such as tofu