National DNA Day: Is Diabetes a Result of Lifestyle or Genetics?

National DNA day is April 25th and it celebrates the discovery of the double helix in 1953, and the Human Genome Project of 2003. The goal is to offer everyone an opportunity to learn more about genetics, and the annual efforts and discoveries related to genomics that can change lives. So how does DNA impact type 2 diabetes? Is the condition purely a result of lifestyle? 

Let’s take a look at what causes type 2 and how it relates to DNA and genetics versus lifestyle.

What are genetic factors for developing type 1 vs type 2?

Although we do see a connection to diabetes and family history, the genetic link between family lineage and diabetes is still somewhat unclear. We know there are genetic, anthropometric and lifestyle risk factors that can all contribute to the likelihood of becoming at risk for diabetes. 

With type 1 diabetes your body doesn’t produce insulin at all. Many times your body mistakenly attacks insulin producing cells thinking it is bacteria or a virus. The other two factors are genetics and the environment. In most cases of type 1 diabetes, people need to inherit risk factors from both parents. However, just because you inherited at risk factors does not mean you will inherit type 1. 

Type 2 diabetes is when your body produces insulin but isn’t using it correctly or making enough of it. Type 2 diabetes has a strong link to family history and lineage. But, there are many other factors that are also linked to type 2 including; weight, age, race, blood pressure, cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, and more. Once again, not everyone who inherits genes will develop type 2, though it does signify a greater risk and a strong need to nurture a healthy lifestyle. 

Read more about it from the American Diabetes Association here

Does DNA impact weight and body fat?

Obesity is very much related to genetics (but also is largely impacted by the environment). This is to say, genetics can influence an individual's weight gain. There are fat mass and obesity associated genes, FTO’s for short, that are linked to predisposition of weight gain. 

The Obesity Medical Association states that, “recent studies suggest that genetics contribute to 40-70% of obesity with the discovery of more than 50 genes that are strongly associated with obesity. While changes in the environment have significantly increased obesity rates over the last 20 years, the presence or absence of genetic factors protect us from or predispose us to obesity.”

Your genetics can contribute to the likelihood of obesity or being overweight. Being overweight and having high body fat can result in type 2 diabetes.  The good news is, you have control over your own lifestyle, your diet and your exercise. The FTO gene that might predispose you to reduced metabolism or increased appetite does not have to be the end result. If you want to stop weight gain you can, and if you want to lose weight it is always possible! 

There are differing opinions about what a healthy body fat percentage is and it is dependent on height, weight, sex and age.  For many women, a healthy range is between 21%-31% and for many healthy men the range is 14%-24%. This number is not an end all, be all, or necessarily an indication of bad or good health! The number fluctuates person to person and is a general benchmark. 

Whether or not you possess the FTO gene, or inherited risks from your family, the choices you make everyday, including healthy diet and exercise, turn your environment into one that combats developing type 2 or maintaining the symptoms of type 2.  

Where can I learn more about DNA and diabetes?

If you would like to read more about the role DNA plays in diabetes, dig deeper in this free publication from the NIH.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) published this book on how genetic variations play a role in type 1, type 2 and other types of diabetes and takes an in-depth look at how genes encode proteins that have diverse functions in cells.