Diabetes and Asian American People

Nationwide, more than 1 in 5 people who have diabetes don’t know they have it. But for Asian American people, that number is higher—around 1 in 3. Why aren’t more getting diagnosed?

Asian man holding cup of tea and looking out a window

Risk for type 2 diabetes increases at a lower BMI.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Body weight plays a big part. Being overweight is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. But you may be like most Asian American people who aren’t considered overweight. So you may not think you’re at risk (and your doctor may not think you are either!).

But as a person of Asian descent, you may have less muscle and more fat than other groups and can develop diabetes at a younger age and lower body weight. That extra body fat tends to be in your belly (visceral fat). Unlike fat stored just under your skin (subcutaneous fat), visceral fat is out of sight, wrapped around organs deep in your body. Others can’t tell how much visceral fat you have just by looking at you.

Visceral fat drives certain processes in the body that can increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and other serious health conditions. Everybody has some visceral fat, but having too much is a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.

How Much is Too Much?

Most health professionals rely on BMI, or body mass index, to assess whether their patients are in the overweight range (BMI of 25 or greater), which suggests they have excess visceral fat. All adults who are overweight should talk to their doctor about getting tested for type 2 diabetes. Like high blood pressure, diabetes often starts without symptoms, so a blood sugar test is needed to know for sure if someone has the condition.

But the standard BMI classification doesn’t catch Asian American people who are in the healthy weight range (18.5 to 24.9) but may have too much visceral fat and already be at risk for type 2 diabetes.

In addition to BMI, you can check your waist circumference (waist size). Waist size takes visceral fat into account and helps predict your risk of health problems from being overweight. Women whose waist measures more than 35 inches and men whose waist measures more than 40 inches are at higher risk.

To measure your waist accurately, stand and place a tape measure around your middle, just above your hipbones. Measure your waist just after you breathe out.

Talk to your doctor about getting tested for high blood sugar if:

  • Your BMI is 23 or greater, or
  • Your waist circumference is over 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (for men).

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed, but only if you know you’re at risk and can take action!