Diabetes has become a global epidemic in recent years, putting strain on the economies and health systems of nations across the globe. Approximately 387 million people are currently affected by this chronic disease, which occurs when the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) or is unable to properly use insulin.

The first scenario is called type 1 diabetes, and is related to auto-immunity (the body fighting against itself). The second, called type 2 diabetes, is often caused by a combination of genes and lifestyle. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form of the disease, accounting for more than 90 percent of the cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Straining Economies and Health Systems

The UK is one nation that has been hit especially hard by diabetes, with the number of cases increasing by roughly 60 percent in the past decade. The cost of treating the condition—as well as related complications such as cardiovascular disease, strokes, and amputations—is so overwhelming that it threatens to bankrupt the UK's National Health System (NHS). And the UK is not the only nation faced with this scenario.

Looking to the Roots of the Problem

A large part of this epidemic can be blamed on the sedentary lifestyle that has become common for millions of people worldwide, as well as diet and food availability—sugary junk foods are readily available, affordable, and extremely convenient, and therefore are being consumed in greater quantities.

“One of the major factors [in the growing type 2 diabetes situation] is that people are losing physical activity,” says.M. Venkat Narayan, MD, MSc, MBA, who directs the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Compared to previous generations, people today live in a world of fewer physical demands. Many people are also very busy, meaning finding time for regular exercise can be difficult.

Diet also plays a significant role in the equation. “People today are eating more refined carbohydrates and manufactured foods. The availability of unhealthy foods, along with an insufficient supply of fruits and vegetables,” is causing a growing number of people to be overweight and to have an increased likelihood of developing diabetes, Narayan adds.

Looking at the Big Picture

Narayan points out that the US led the way in the diabetes epidemic, with the UK following closely behind, but the effects have now extended to countries worldwide, especially developing countries, where health care systems and economies are not equipped to handle the growing demand for treatment, care, and services.

Diabetes is also affecting younger people, which can negatively impact a country's workforce and national economy.

Lifestyle Modifications Can Make a Difference

The good news is that public health experts believe that the problem can be stemmed by implementing widespread education efforts and lifestyle modifications targeting healthy eating and exercise practices. By encouraging more people to make healthy choices, many cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented. In addition, providing proper care and monitoring for people who already have the disease can be essential to heading off complications.

What You Can Do

To lower your own risk of developing type 2 diabetes, WHO recommends the following steps:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Engage in 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity activity daily.
  • Eat three to five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Lower your intake of refined carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fats.
  • Don't smoke, or if you do smoke, quit.

K. M. Venkat Narayan, MD, MSc, MB, Director, Emory Global Diabetes Research Center, reviewed this article.


Diabetes: Fact Sheet No. 312. World Health Organization (WHO). Updated Jan. 2015.

Hu, Frank B, MD, PhD. “Globalization of Diabetes. The Role of Lifestyle, Diet, and Genes.” Diabetes Care, vol. 34 no 6 (June 2011): 1249-1257. doi: 10.2337/dc11-0442

Narayan, K. M. Venkat, MD, MSc, MB, Director, Emory Global Diabetes Research Center. Phone interview, Aug. 24, 2015.

Press Association. “Huge rise in UK diabetes cases threatens to bankrupt NHS, charity warns.” TheGuardian.com. Aug. 17, 2015.