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Hidden fat' puts Asian Americans at risk of diabetes. How lifestyle changes can help

Back in 2021, Shaheen Aamir felt too tired to play actively with her two kids. "I used to tell them, 'You guys can play, Mom wants to sit,'" she says. Aamir says she never exercised and was worried about her weight.

Now, three years later, 32-year-old Aamir starts every day with some yoga or dancing. It's been part of her routine since she took a four-month course on preventing Type 2 diabetes. "It changed my life, health- and fitness-wise," Aamir says, "I feel light and energetic. It's raised my self-esteem."

Aamir, who immigrated from Pakistan a few years ago and has a family history of diabetes, was one of nearly 550 people to participate in the South Asian Healthy Lifestyle Intervention Program, or SAHELI, a study designed to treat and prevent diabetes and heart disease among South Asians living in and around Chicago.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have higher rates of diabetes than whites, and are prone to developing Type 2 diabetes at younger ages and lower body weights than the general U.S. population. Among Asian subgroups, the risk of diabetes is especially high among South Asians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders.

For those at risk, screen twice

There's also problems with the diagnostic tests themselves, Araneta says. The simplest test for diabetes involves taking a blood sample – no fasting required – to measure the levels of sugar attached to the protein hemoglobin, or A1C, in your blood. An A1C level of 6.5% or higher indicates diabetes, according to current medical guidance. These cutoffs were determined based on research primarily conducted on people of European descent.

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