Asian Americans & Diabetes

Researchers have found that there are certain ethnic groups with the United States that are underdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  One such group is Asian Americans.  It was found that more than half of Asian Americans with type 2 diabetes are underdiagnosed which makes it the highest proportion of all ethnic and racial groups surveyed.

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a project of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) assessed a large number of Asian Americans.  An interesting finding had to do with the participant’s body mass index (BMI).  The BMI is a measurement calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of that person’s height in meters.  It is considered the best way to distinguish between overweight or obesity.

A BMI of 25 – 29.9 is considered overweight while a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.  Generally, people diagnosed with diabetes have a BMI of at least 25 or higher since carrying excess weight is a known risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.  In the Asian American population, most of them develop diabetes at a lower BMI than other groups.  The average BMI for Asian Americans surveyed was below 25, while for the general U.S. population, it was just under 29. 

What has been known is that most Asian Americans are not overweight and therefore they may believe they are unlikely to develop diabetes.  But due to differences in body size, physiology, and cultural differences between Asians and Caucasians, the traditional belief that appearance-wise, a person with diabetes is either overweight or obese, may not apply to Asians.  For that reason, researchers have advised that Asian Americans get tested for diabetes beginning at a BMI of 23 which is lower than the threshold recommended for the general population. 

There are several reasons why education efforts should be strengthened among Asian Americans who may not outwardly appear to be someone with type 2 diabetes.  One is that traditional Asian cooking is generally not the problem – it tends to be low in fat and high in fiber.  But what happens is when Asians come to the United States to live they shift their dietary habits to consuming more processed foods high in fat, sugar, calories and even sodium.  This means they are not eating as many fruits and vegetables or lean meat like fish that can be significantly impacting their health.

Another reason why Asian Americans may not feel they are a candidate for type 2 diabetes is the fact they often don’t have a high BMI or are putting on much weight.  Weight gain is not the only sign that could be signaling diabetes.  They need to be aware that there are other symptoms such as frequent thirst, urination and unexplained fatigue that also are signs of diabetes.  Unless an Asian American informs their doctor of such symptoms, the doctor may not test them for diabetes and they then remain undiagnosed.

It is recommended that any Asian American who is presenting with symptoms of type 2 diabetes such as excess thirst, hunger, or urination, should consult with their physician to check for this chronic condition.