Diabetes affects 26 million Americans — a growing number thanks to obesity. The list of diabetes-associated ailments includes heart disease, stroke, dementia and blindness. Mounting research adds another risk factor to the list: cancer.

A recent paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research reviewed the findings of an NIH-AARP study which followed 500,000 men and women ages 50-71 over the course of 11 years. Study participants who had type 2 diabetes demonstrated a significantly increased risk of cancer: 8% higher among women and 9% higher among men (when prostate cancer was excluded). While diabetes appeared to actually lower prostate cancer rates (as a function of depressing testosterone levels), it actually doubled the risk of liver cancer among both genders. Cancer morbidity was also up: Diabetic men were 17% more likely to die of cancer, whereas the odds were 11% higher among diabetic women.

Why might this be? Researchers speculate that out-of-whack glucose and insulin signaling may help prompt and spread certain cancers. Fortunately, modifiable factors — such as diet and lifestyle — can reduce your likelihood of developing diabetes in the first place. Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial to minimizing diabetes risk. Produce provides protection against diabetes-inducing obesity, while ongoing research is exploring the anti-diabetes potential of particular fruit and vegetables. For example, lab studies suggest that compounds in cruciferous veggies (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) may help protect diabetics’ blood vessels — and eggplant extracts may help manage blood sugar levels, according to one basic study. Vitamin K — found abundantly in kale, spinach and other greens — has also been associated with reduced insulin resistance.

Bonus: More evidence on the importance of favoring whole foods over supplements. One eight-year study found a 50% higher risk of developing diabetes among those taking selenium supplements.

 Published May 1, 2011