Globally, the number of people with diabetes mellitus has quadrupled in the past three decades, and diabetes mellitus is the ninth major cause of death. About 1 in 11 adults worldwide now have diabetes mellitus, 90% of whom have type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). Asia is a major area of the rapidly emerging T2DM global epidemic, with China and India the top two epicentres. Although genetic predisposition partly determines individual susceptibility to T2DM, an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle are important drivers of the current global epidemic; early developmental factors (such as intrauterine exposures) also have a role in susceptibility to T2DM later in life. Many cases of T2DM could be prevented with lifestyle changes, including maintaining a healthy body weight, consuming a healthy diet, staying physically active, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation. Most patients with T2DM have at least one complication, and cardiovascular complications are the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in these patients. This Review provides an updated view of the global epidemiology of T2DM, as well as dietary, lifestyle and other risk factors for T2DM and its complications.