An estimated 29.2 million American adults —including one out of four people aged 65 or older—have diabetes. (Most have type 2 diabetes). Roughly 8.1 million of them don’t know it. And 86 million others have pre-diabetes.
However, there is evidence that magnesium-rich foods can help prevent Type 2 diabetes.
The disease takes a heavy toll
- People who have diabetes are at higher risk of serious health complications, such as blindness and kidney failure.
- About half of people with diabetes have nervous system damage.
- Each year, about 73,000 Americans with diabetes have a foot or leg amputated.
Type 1 diabetes, which typically strikes in childhood, occurs when the body’s immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels. Type 1 accounts for 5 to 10 percent of diabetes cases.
In Type 2 diabetes (which this article will refer to simply as “diabetes”), the body’s cells don’t use insulin properly. As the need for insulin rises, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to make enough, and blood sugar levels climb.
What causes diabetes
Extra pounds are by far the biggest risk factor. Genes, lack of exercise, and diet also play a role. Whole grains, fiber-rich foods, and coffee (decaf or regular) seem to lower the risk. Sugar- sweetened beverages, processed meats, and white potatoes seem to raise it.
One nutrient that often gets overlooked: magnesium.
“We have a lot of evidence from observational studies that magnesium is beneficial for preventing Type 2 diabetes,” says Yiqing Song, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.
For example, when researchers tracked more than 85,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study for 18 years and 42,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study for 12 years, those who consumed the most magnesium (about 375 mg a day for women and 450 mg a day for men) had a 27 percent lower risk of diabetes than those who consumed the least magnesium (about 200 mg a day for women and 270 mg a day for men).
The Iowa Women’s Health Study and the Women’s Health Study came up with similar results.
“In the Women’s Health Study, we found an association between a low magnesium intake and an increased risk of diabetes only among overweight women,” says Song.
“Magnesium may be more beneficial for overweight women because they are more likely to be at high risk for diabetes,” he notes.
In some studies, women with higher magnesium intakes—no matter what their weight—had lower fasting insulin levels. That may mean a lower risk of diabetes.
What’s more, in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, those who consumed more magnesium had lower levels of c-reactive protein and other signs of chronic low-level inflammation.
“Chronic inflammation may be the link between obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” explains Song. “Obesity can cause chronic inflammation.
“The two major features of diabetes are insulin resistance and beta-cell dysfunction,” he notes.
“Chronic inflammation may cause insulin resistance in peripheral tissues, and it may damage the beta cells in the pancreas that secrete insulin.”
“Still,” adds Song, “observational studies can’t show cause and effect. We need direct evidence from a large, long-term clinical trial before we can make any conclusive statements for magnesium and Type 2 diabetes.”
The bottom line
“I would recommend consuming high levels of magnesium-rich foods,” says Song. “Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans. It’s very safe to get more magnesium in your diet.”
These magnesium-rich foods will help you reach that goal:
- Pumpkins seed kernels
- Swiss chard
- Lima or black beans
- Yellowfin tuna
- Dark chocolate
- Beet greens
- Oat bran or oatmeal
- Kidney or pinto beans
- Navy or Great Northern beans
- Garbanzo beans
- Low‐fat plain yogurt
A typical woman gets 250 milligrams of magnesium a day, but should get 320 mg. A typical man gets 335 mg, but should get 420 mg. The Daily Value (DV) is 400 mg.
Sources: cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/factsheet07.htm 19 Diabetes Care 27: 134, 2004. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 71: 921, 2000. Diabetes Care 27: 59, 2004. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 22: 533, 2003. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 85: 1068, 2007. Diabetes Care 33: 304, 2010. Diabetes Care 33: 304, 2010. USDA.