South Asians’ Impaired Ability to Burn Fat Makes Them More Prone to Diabetes

With more than 50 million diabetics ‒ mainly type 2 ‒ India is facing a full-blown diabetes epidemic. Another100 million are at the stage of pre-diabetes. Only China suffers from far more cases of diabetes.

While anecdotal evidence suggests diabetes has assuming epidemic proportions in the subcontinent as a result of improved incomes but poorer lifestyle and dietary choices, especially among the middle class, a new study reveals that people from South Asia are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes because of the way their muscles burn and store body fat.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, analyzed the rates of fat metabolism in 20 men of South Asian origin and 20 white European men.

Their findings suggested that South Asian men have a lower rate of fat metabolism during exercise than their European counterparts, as well as reduced sensitivity to insulin – indicating a possible tendency towards glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes.

The scientists said the association between fat metabolism rate and insulin sensitivity was due to key differences between the muscles of south Asians and Europeans.

They discovered that the expression of genes key to fat metabolism was lower in the muscles of south Asians, affecting their ability to process fat and thus increasing the risk of insulin resistance – a major factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.

Dr Jason Gill, who led the study, said: “Our results suggest that the ability of south Asians’ muscles to use fat as a fuel is lower than in Europeans.”

“In other words, if a south Asian man and a European man were walking alongside each other at the same speed, the south Asian man’s muscles would be burning less fat and this may contribute to a greater risk of developing diabetes.”

Dr Victoria King, from British charity Diabetes UK, said: “This new insight could provide the basis for future studies looking at lifestyle, or drug interventions to enhance the uptake and burning of fat in muscles, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes in this high risk group.”

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal PLoS One.

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