Press Releases

2001 Releases

Study Links Combination of Health Risk Behaviors with a Greater Risk for Type 2 Diabetes in Women

For immediate release:  September 13, 2001 

Boston, MA – Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have linked a combination of lifestyle behaviors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and abstinence from alcohol, to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes among women. The study results appear in the September 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, (

Using the Nurses’ Health Study, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital-based study, the researchers tracked diet and lifestyle habits of 89,941 women from 1980 to 1996 via biennial questionnaires. At the start of the study the women had to be free of diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular disease. During the 16 years, 3,300 new cases of type 2 diabetes were diagnosed. Type 2 diabetes usually occurs after age 40. People with this type of diabetes do not produce adequate amounts of insulin for the needs of the body and/or cannot use insulin effectively.

The study found that obesity (determined by body mass index) was the single most important predictor of diabetes. Lack of exercise, a diet high in trans fat intake and high glycemic index, current smoking and abstinence from alcohol were also associated with a significant increased risk for diabetes. Small amounts of alcohol are thought to protect against heart disease. The authors found that 61 percent of the cases of type 2 diabetes in the study could be attributed to obesity. Women who consumed a diet low in trans fat (found in hydrogenated vegetable oils), high in cereal fibers and had on average at least half an alcoholic drink per day (5 grams of alcohol) and exercised moderately to vigorously for at least 30 minutes a day and didn’t smoke, reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 90 percent when compared to women who did not exhibit any of these behaviors. 

Frank Hu, MD, PhD, lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health said, “The study conclusion is straightforward: obesity is a predictor of type 2 diabetes in women and can lead to other health risks. By increasing physical activity and incorporating a healthy diet into one’s lifestyle, women significantly lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and by a Research Award from the American Diabetes Association. 

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman  
Office of Communications  
Harvard School of Public Health  
677 Huntington Avenue  
Boston, MA 02115  
Phone: 617-432-4752