An image of a n older South Asian and his three grandkids.


South Asians’ Diabetes Risk: A Call to Action

South Asians’ diabetes risk is alarmingly high, posing a significant health challenge to the community. With genetic and lifestyle factors intertwining to increase susceptibility, it’s imperative that individuals take immediate steps to mitigate these risks. This blog post delves into the causes and offers practical solutions, particularly focusing on dietary changes, to reverse this troubling trend.


Genetic and Evolutionary Influences

Understanding the genetic and evolutionary influences on South Asians’ diabetes risk provides key insights into why this population is predisposed to higher rates of type 2 diabetes. This susceptibility is multifaceted, stemming from both genetic predispositions and historical evolutionary adaptations.


Genetic Predispositions Enhancing South Asians’ Diabetes Risk


Beta-Cell Dysfunction

Central to the genetic factors increasing South Asians’ diabetes risk is the dysfunction of beta-cells in the pancreas. These cells, which are crucial for insulin production, exhibit compromised functionality due to genetic variations prevalent in South Asians. This dysfunction limits the body’s ability to produce adequate insulin, essential for regulating blood glucose levels, leading to an increased diabetes risk at an earlier age than typically observed in other ethnic groups.


Beta-cells, which are crucial for insulin production, exhibit compromised functionality due to genetic variations prevalent in South Asians.


Low Lean Muscle Mass

Another key genetic trait contributing to the risk is their generally lower lean muscle mass. Muscle mass plays a vital role in glucose metabolism; more muscle not only enhances glucose uptake but also improves overall metabolic health. The genetic inclination towards lower muscle mass in South Asians means less glucose is utilized, maintaining higher insulin levels and fostering insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.


Evolutionary Adaptations Impacting South Asians’ Diabetes Risk


Adaptation to Famine and Agricultural Lifestyle

Historical adaptations to famine and an agricultural lifestyle have selected for genes that are proficient at storing fat and conserving energy in South Asians. These evolutionary traits were beneficial during times of food scarcity but now contribute to South Asians’ diabetes risk in an era of caloric abundance and minimal physical activity. These adaptations lead to higher abdominal fat levels, a known risk factor for diabetes, even in individuals with normal or low body weight by Western standards.


Thrifty Gene Hypothesis

The thrifty gene hypothesis posits that some populations, including South Asians, have evolved genes that make them exceptionally efficient at calorie usage and fat storage. This genetic efficiency helped their ancestors survive periods of famine but today increases South Asians’ diabetes risk in a world where food is plentiful and lifestyles are predominantly sedentary.


The Important Role of Ectopic Fat in South Asians’ Diabetes Risk

Ectopic fat deposition significantly contributes to South Asians’ diabetes risk by affecting key organs and metabolic functions. This type of fat storage, which occurs in non-adipose tissues like the liver and muscles, plays a critical role in the development of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.


South Asians are genetically-prone to accumulating ectopic fat, which significantly contributes to diabetes risk by affecting key organs and metabolic functions.


Hepatic Insulin Resistance and South Asians’ Diabetes Risk

One of the primary areas where ectopic fat impacts South Asians’ diabetes risk is through hepatic insulin resistance. When fat accumulates in the liver, it interferes with the organ’s ability to process insulin effectively. Normally, insulin signals the liver to stop producing glucose when there’s enough in the bloodstream. However, in the presence of hepatic fat, these signals get disrupted, leading the liver to continue glucose production. This inappropriate release contributes to higher blood glucose levels, exacerbating risk.


Intramyocellular Lipids and Muscle Insulin Sensitivity

Similarly, the accumulation of intramyocellular lipids—fat within muscle fibers—diminishes muscle insulin sensitivity, further elevating South Asians’ diabetes risk. Muscles normally absorb a significant amount of glucose from the blood under the influence of insulin. However, when fat infiltrates muscle tissues, it reduces their ability to respond to insulin. Since muscle tissue is a major site for glucose disposal, impaired insulin action here significantly impacts overall glucose homeostasis and contributes to the increased diabetes risk in South Asians.


The Vicious Cycle Affecting South Asians’ Diabetes Risk

The interplay between ectopic fat, beta-cell dysfunction, and insulin resistance creates a vicious cycle that significantly magnifies South Asians’ diabetes risk. Poor insulin secretion due to beta-cell dysfunction leads to elevated blood glucose levels. This, in turn, promotes further ectopic fat deposition, which exacerbates insulin resistance in the liver and muscles. As this cycle continues, it not only increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes but also accelerates its onset and severity among South Asians.


The Crucial Interaction of Genetics and Lifestyle

The heightened diabetes risk among South Asians cannot be attributed to genetic factors alone; it is also profoundly influenced by lifestyle choices. This section explores how these two elements combine to exacerbate the risk of developing diabetes, providing a deeper understanding of why South Asians face such significant health challenges.


Genetic Susceptibilities and Dietary Habits

South Asians’ diabetes risk is intricately linked to genetic predispositions that affect metabolism and insulin production. For instance, the prevalent beta-cell dysfunction in this population impairs insulin regulation, which is critical for maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. However, when these genetic factors meet the modern diet, which often includes high levels of processed foods and sugars, the situation worsens.

Typical South Asian diets are rich in refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and bread, which can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar. These spikes are particularly problematic for individuals with an already compromised insulin response. The constant demand on the pancreas to manage high sugar levels can lead to earlier onset and more aggressive progression of diabetes.


A mound of curried rice on a plate.
Typical South Asian diets are rich in refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and bread, which can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar.


Physical Inactivity: Amplifying Genetic Risks

Another key lifestyle factor that significantly impacts South Asians’ diabetes risk is physical inactivity. With urbanization and technological advancements, sedentary lifestyles have become more common among South Asians, both in their home countries and in diaspora communities. This lack of physical activity not only contributes to obesity but also exacerbates the genetic predisposition to lower muscle mass and higher fat accumulation.

Regular exercise is crucial because it helps increase muscle mass and improve muscle insulin sensitivity. In contrast, inactivity leads to increased fatty tissue, which promotes insulin resistance. Thus, the combination of genetic traits favoring fat storage with a lack of adequate physical activity creates a perfect storm’


The Role of Cultural Factors

Cultural factors also play significant roles in shaping the lifestyle choices of South Asians, further influencing their diabetes risk. Cultural norms that favor certain types of cuisine or social practices like sedentary leisure activities can hinder efforts to adopt healthier lifestyles.

There is also often a lack of awareness about the risks of diabetes and the importance of diet and exercise in its management. Educational programs that are culturally tailored to address these issues can be highly effective in changing behaviors and reducing South Asians’ diabetes risk.


A display of roti with curry sauce.
Just one medium roti can contain 19g of carbs – enough for a blood sugar spike in some individuals.


Comprehensive Lifestyle Changes

To effectively reduce South Asians’ diabetes risk, there needs to be a comprehensive approach that includes education, access to healthy food, and encouragement of physical activity. It is imperative for both individuals and communities to recognize the severe implications of genetic and lifestyle factors intertwining and to take proactive steps towards healthier living.

Changing dietary habits to include more whole grains, vegetables, and lean proteins, while reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates, can significantly mitigate genetic risks. Similarly, incorporating regular physical activity into daily routines can greatly enhance insulin sensitivity and reduce fat accumulation, crucial steps for combating the elevated diabetes risk in the South Asian population.


A South Asian mother holds her young child as they watch the grandmother prepare food at the stovetop.
Over time, a ketogenic diet can help delay or prevent the onset of diabetes.


The Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet

Adopting a ketogenic diet can play a crucial role in reducing the risk of diabetes. This section delves deeper into how this diet works and why it’s particularly beneficial.


Understanding the Ketogenic Diet

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low-carbohydrate diet that forces the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates. By significantly reducing carbohydrate intake, the body enters a state of ketosis, where it metabolizes fat at a higher rate, producing ketones for energy instead of relying on glucose. This metabolic state is particularly beneficial for individuals with insulin resistance, a common issue among South Asians due to genetic predispositions and lifestyle choices.


Impact on Insulin Sensitivity

One of the primary benefits of a ketogenic diet for South Asians’ diabetes risk is its impact on insulin sensitivity. By lowering carbohydrate intake, the ketogenic diet reduces the demand on the pancreas for high levels of insulin, thereby reducing the stress on beta-cells. Over time, this can help improve the function of these cells and delay or prevent the onset of diabetes. Furthermore, reduced glucose levels in the blood help stabilize insulin responses and decrease the likelihood of insulin resistance.


Fat Metabolism and Weight Management

A ketogenic diet also helps in effective weight management, crucial for reducing the risk of diabetes. Excess body weight, particularly around the abdomen, increases the risk of developing insulin resistance. The ketogenic diet’s focus on high-fat and protein intake helps promote a feeling of fullness for longer periods, reducing overall calorie intake and aiding in weight loss. Moreover, the shift to fat as a primary energy source helps reduce ectopic fat deposition, a significant factor in diabetes.


Ketogenic Diet in the South Asian Dietary Context

Integrating a ketogenic diet into the South Asian dietary context involves substituting traditional staples like rice and wheat with low-carbohydrate alternatives such as cauliflower rice and other non-starchy vegetables. It also means incorporating healthier fats like coconut oil, ghee, and nuts, which are already part of the traditional South Asian diet. These substitutions not only adhere to cultural dietary preferences but also enhance the diet’s effectiveness in managing blood glucose levels.


Final Thoughts

The combination of genetic factors, evolutionary history, and modern lifestyle choices makes South Asians particularly vulnerable to diabetes at a younger age. By understanding these risks and adopting a ketogenic diet, individuals can take significant steps towards reversing this trend. Let’s collectively move towards a healthier future, reducing the risk through informed dietary choices and proactive health management. It’s time to take action now, for ourselves and future generations.


A Note to Commercial Bakeries

You can easily produce delicious keto-friendly  products which are clean label, high protein and plant-based!

  • Recipes provided on all bulk orders
  • Ongoing customer support always available
  • To order, visit our wholesale distributor, SnowCap Enterprises, and search: Powerflax Gold Low Carb Mix (SNC80).
  • Worldwide shipping is available – contact


What to read next …

The Keto Diet: Your Personal Diabetes Prevention Program



Laurie Tsemak is the founder and co-owner of PowerFlax Holdings Inc. and Red Square Bakery. Laurie and her husband, Mark have spent 34 years in the wholesale and retail baking field, focusing on innovative product development to serve health-conscious customers and forward-thinking commercial bakeries.

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