The findings are from a large French study and the results have been published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
Previous studies have looked only at the effect of individual nutrients on type 2 diabetes. Researchers for this latest study looked at overall antioxidants within a person's diet.
Analysing already collected data from an ongoing trial into health across generations, the researchers followed 64,223 women with an average age of 52, from 1993 to 2008. All of them were initially free from diabetes and completed a detailed dietary questionnaire at the beginning of their inclusion in the trial.
During the 15 years 1,751 of the women developed type 2 diabetes. Using this information along with data on the antioxidant capacity of a large number of different foods, they calculated a score for 'total dietary antioxidants' for each participant. They then analysed the associations between this score and the risk of diabetes occurring during the follow-up period.
The researchers found that the risk of type 2 diabetes in middle-aged women fell progressively with increased antioxidant consumption but only up to a level of 15 mmol/day. After that the effect reached a plateau.
Women with the highest antioxidant scores had a reduction in diabetes risk of 27% compared with those with the lowest scores.
After taking into account other major risk factors for type 2 diabetes, including smoking and body mass index (BMI), the link persisted between a diet rich in antioxidants and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
The foods and drinks that contributed the most to a high dietary antioxidant score were fruits and vegetables, tea and red wine - consumed in moderate quantities.
Coffee was excluded from the analysis, despite its high antioxidant levels, because the antioxidants in coffee have already been shown to be associated with reduced type 2 diabetes risk, and might mask the effects of antioxidants from other sources.
The researchers believes future studies are needed to find out specifically why antioxidants have the affect they do.
Pav Kalsi, Diabetes UK senior clinical advisor, comments in a statement: "This study adds to the evidence that a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, is linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. We now need to find out more about the potential protective effects of these foods in everyone at risk of type 2 diabetes.
"As well as fresh fruit and vegetables, there are other foods, such as wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fermented foods like yoghurt, that are protective against type 2 diabetes. But there are also foods we should eat less of, such as red and processed meat and sugary drinks."
He says: "Ultimately, the best way to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes is by maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise."
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