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Despite healthy image, Japanese-Americans' diabetes risk higher

Diabetes is on the rise, especially among ethnic minorities. Hispanics and blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites to die of diabetes, and the rate is even higher for and Native Americans. Even Japanese Americans, despite their healthier image, have a higher than average risk of diabetes.

In fact, if you stand a Japanese-American side-by-side with a Caucasian-American of the same height and weight, the diabetes risk is about 18% higher for the person with Japaneseancestry. One study suggested the overall risk could be as much as 60% higher for Asian-Americans. Type-two diabetes is linked to weight-gain.

Tsukasa Namekata, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, has seen it first-hand. He grew up in rural Japan, and moved to Seattle as college student. Now, in his 60's, he's discovered he's "very close to a pre-diabetes condition" himself.

"The Japanese are very susceptible to diabetes, even gaining a small amount of weight," he says. He’s thin by American standards, but perhaps not thin enough to avoid diabetes.

Whether the cause is genetics or the environment is still debated. There’s evidence for both.

Namekata’s own research, comparing diets and lifestyles, shows people in the U.S. eat more than in Japan. For example:

  • Japanese-Americans are twice as likely to eat until they’re full compared to the Japanese, he says.
  • The U.S. diet has a lot more red meat and sugary foods.
  • In Japan, most people an extra serving of vegetables, compared to people in the U.S. 

One theory about genetics says people with Asian or Native American ancestries have metabolisms that aren’t prepared for all those extra calories, and they end up with higher blood sugar levels and hence diabetes.
More Information:

There’s an educational event about diabetes this Saturday targeting Japanese-Americans, at Hyatt Regency Bellevue, 900 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, WA from 10:00a.m. to 5p.m. 

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.