Hesperian Health Guides

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?

Unhealthy environments cause most Type 2 diabetes. Many people get sick with diabetes because of too many processed foods coming into their communities and changes in their ways of life that are unhealthy. Causes of diabetes include:

a child buying food from a store.
Instead of buying sweets today, have a banana or a mango.

Unhealthy foods

Sugary drinks, sweet and processed foods, and white flours all put too much sugar into the blood, as well as making the body put on extra fat. Processed and packaged foods can be hard to resist. Sometimes they are cheaper, and in cities are often more available than healthy, fresh foods. But these processed foods cause diabetes and other serious health problems.

Not moving your body enough

People who are farming, walking, doing physical work or active play will burn up extra sugar in the blood as fuel. People who sit or stand still most of the day do not burn up enough sugar, so it stays in their blood.

a man carrying boxes on his back labelled "boss yelling", "new place>
When stress piles up, it can affect your health.


When people are under a lot of stress all the time, their bodies hold on to sugar instead of using it. This causes blood sugar levels to increase.

Fat around the belly

A thick waist seems to make people more likely to get diabetes.

Family members with diabetes

Diabetes runs in families, so people who have family members with diabetes are more likely to get it.


If people do not eat enough food, their bodies will hold on to the sugar they eat. This can start in childhood or even before birth while a baby is in the womb.

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Older people are more likely to get diabetes.


Some chemicals affect how our bodies use sugar. Chemicals can reach us in the workplace, through pollution in the community, or because they are added to food or other products we use.

How chemicals contribute to diabetes

Along with the food we eat and the way we live, some chemicals cause diabetes. Working with, eating, drinking, or breathing any of these chemicals is known to raise the risk of diabetes:

  • Dioxins are by-products of making pesticides and paper, and from burning plastics.
  • PCBs are a type of chemical used in industry for insulation and lubrication.
  • Phthalates are often found in body care creams and oils.
  • Bisphenols are found in plastic bottles used for bottled water, juice, and soda.
  • Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, are released into the environment by industry, such as oil drilling and refining, mining, and others.
  • Pesticides are used to kill insects or weeds.

The best way to protect yourself from these chemicals is by not using them. If there are chemicals in your workplace and you cannot convince your boss to change to safer chemicals, try not to breathe them or touch them. Wear a face mask and other protective clothing and wash your hands often so the chemicals don’t get on your food or in your mouth.

a man wearing a mask spraying plants with pesticide.

Chemicals are all around us. Eat foods that have not been sprayed with pesticides. Try to find household cleaners and body care products that have no or few chemicals.

Chemical pollution of water, air, and food by workplaces is a harder problem. It can be solved only when a community pressures owners, and governments enforce rules on industry.

For more on protecting our food, water, land, and air, see A Community Guide to Environmental Health.

This page was updated:03 Jan 2020