What Causes Diabetes? Learn the Underlying Risk Factors

Diabetes is a word that has become increasingly familiar in modern societies. It is associated with a range of health complications and lifestyle factors, but many remain unclear about what truly causes it. This article delves into the various types of diabetes, their causes, symptoms, and the latest statistics.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as diabetes, is a chronic health condition where the body’s ability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone required to convert sugar into energy, is impaired. This leads to elevated levels of blood sugar over a prolonged period.

How Common Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a relatively common medical condition worldwide. According to data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), in 2019, approximately 463 million adults (20–79 years old) were estimated to be living with diabetes globally. This number was expected to rise due to various factors, including population growth, aging, urbanization, and increasing obesity rates.


  1. 1 in 11 adults aged 20–79 years have diabetes.
  2. 1 in 2 adults with diabetes remains undiagnosed.
  3. Every 8 seconds, someone in the world dies from diabetes or its complications.
  4. Diabetes caused 4.2 million deaths in 2019.
  5. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes cases.

What Are the Symptoms of Diabetes?

General Symptoms

  • Increased thirst and hunger
  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Slow-healing sores or frequent infections

Symptoms in Men

  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Reduced muscle strength
  • Decreased libido

Symptoms in Women

  • Recurrent vaginal infections
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Reduced fertility

How Many Types of Diabetes Are There?

There are primarily three main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. Each type has different causes, risk factors, and management approaches.

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition wherein the immune system mistakenly targets and destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. While the exact cause remains unknown, it’s believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some possible triggers include viral infections and early exposure to cow’s milk or cereals in infants.


  1. Type 1 diabetes is commonly diagnosed in children and young adults, but it can appear at any age.
  2. Incidences of Type 1 diabetes have been increasing by about 3% annually.

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes arises when the body becomes resistant to insulin or when the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin. Factors contributing to Type 2 include:

  • Genetics
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Aging
  • Hormonal diseases


  1. Over 90% of adults with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.
  2. The prevalence is increasing, especially in lower-middle-income countries.

What Causes Gestational Diabetes?

Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and results from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to meet its increased needs. Factors include:

  • Obesity before pregnancy
  • Age (older pregnant women are at higher risk)
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Previous gestational diabetes


  1. Gestational diabetes affects between 2% to 10% of pregnancies every year.
  2. Women with gestational diabetes have a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes within 5–10 years after giving birth.

Risk Factors

  1. Family history of diabetes
  2. Obesity or being overweight
  3. Sedentary lifestyle
  4. Unhealthy diet
  5. Metabolic Syndrome
  6. Age (older adults are at higher risk)
  7. Ethnicity (African, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian Pacific Islander populations are at higher risk)
  8. History of gestational diabetes
  9. Environmental triggers
  10. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

How to Prevent Diabetes?

Preventing or delaying the onset of diabetes can be achieved through:

  1. Adopting a Balanced Diet: Focus on a diet rich in whole grains, lean protein sources, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. Limit your intake of sugary beverages, refined carbohydrates, and high-calorie foods. Consider a Mediterranean-style or plant-based diet, as they have been associated with a lower risk of diabetes.
  2. Portion Control: Be mindful of portion sizes to avoid overeating. Avoiding oversized portions can help control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight.
  3. Choosing Complex Carbohydrates: Opt for whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, and oatmeal, over refined carbohydrates. These foods have a lower impact on blood sugar levels.
  4. Staying Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Avoid sugary beverages like soda and fruit juices.
  5. Regular Physical Activity: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, along with strength training exercises. Regular physical activity can help improve insulin sensitivity and manage weight.
  6. Limiting Sedentary Time: Minimize the time you spend sitting or being inactive. Take short breaks to move around if you have a sedentary job or lifestyle.
  7. Quitting Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of various health problems, including type 2 diabetes. Quitting smoking has numerous health benefits, including reducing diabetes risk.
  8. Managing Stress: Chronic stress can contribute to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain. Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and mindfulness.
  9. Getting Enough Sleep: Aim for 7–9 hours of quality sleep each night. Poor sleep patterns and lack of sleep can affect insulin sensitivity and increase diabetes risk.
  10. Regular Check-ups: Schedule regular visits with your healthcare provider to monitor your health and discuss your diabetes risk. Blood sugar tests and other screenings can help detect any potential issues early.

Remember that preventing diabetes is a combination of various lifestyle factors. Consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet or exercise routine, especially if you have existing health conditions. They can provide personalized guidance based on your individual circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Diabetes is a multifaceted disease with genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors playing roles in its onset. Understanding its causes and symptoms is the first step in prevention and management. With proactive measures, one can reduce the risk of developing this chronic condition and lead a healthier, more fulfilling life.


  1. International Diabetes Federation. IDF Diabetes Atlas, 9th edn. Brussels, Belgium: International Diabetes Federation, 2019. 
  2. American Diabetes Association. “Diagnosis and classification of diabetes mellitus.” Diabetes care 37.Supplement 1 (2014): S81-S90. 
  3. Mayo Clinic. “Diabetes symptoms & causes.” Available at: www.mayoclinic.org

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