According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Diabetes Statistic Report published in 2014, over 29 million people (or more than nine percent of the U.S. population) have diabetes. What is surprising is that more than eight million of those people are undiagnosed.
The complications from diabetes can be serious, and include damage to the eyes, kidneys, and nerves. People living with diabetes also are at a greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease. While there are things you cannot control when trying to reduce your risk, such as a family history of diabetes or your race/ethnicity (African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, some Asians, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are at an increased risk for developing diabetes), there are some simple things you can do to reduce your risk for diabetes and its complications.
#1: Lose weight
If you are overweight or obese, you are at a greater risk for developing diabetes. Even a small weight loss can make a big difference in blood sugar control. Research noted by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) shows that you can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes by over 50 percent by losing just seven percent of your excess body weight. If you weigh 250 pounds, this would mean losing 18 pounds to reduce your risk.
The ADA also emphasizes that moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can reduce your risk. Lauren Bronich-Hall, MS, RD, LDN, certified diabetes educator and director of patient and provider education at PRIME Education, advises her patients, “Slow and steady wins the race!”
“The importance of activity in preventing diabetes cannot be overemphasized,” she says. “Think of activity as a medication, and you need to take one dose per day. Not only will exercise assist with lowering blood glucose, it also helps with blood pressure, bones, and muscles.”
#3: Increase fiber intake
Limit the amount of processed foods and added sugars in your diet, replacing them with foods such as whole grains and vegetables. “A diet high in fiber can help to prevent diabetes,” advises Christine McKinney, MS, RD, LDN, a certified diabetes educator at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, in an interview. “Fiber slows down the rise in glucose and can help with weight control by helping you to feel full longer. A high fiber diet will help you reduce your intake of sweets and processed foods. Aim for 25-30 grams of fiber daily to help prevent diabetes.”
“I always encourage my patients to eat more vegetables,” notes Bronich-Hall. “Most veggies do not add many calories, but they do add fiber. This helps promote a feeling of fullness. I advocate for increased portions of vegetables for everyone. Aim for half of your plate.”
#4: Adopt a healthy lifestyle
If you are at risk for developing diabetes, you also are at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Lower your blood pressure, quit smoking, and manage your blood lipid levels. This can help to further reduce your risk for disease.
If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, managing your disease is crucial to decrease your risk of disease-related complications. “A common misconception that I have to clarify with patients is that diabetes does not just ‘go away,’” says Suzy Carobrese, RD, LDN, certified diabetes educator at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, during an in-person interview. “If their blood glucose improves with changes made to diet and lifestyle and potentially the addition of medication, then their diabetes is being ‘managed.’ It is important for my patients to understand that as soon as they return to their previous less-healthy eating habits and lifestyle behaviors, and/or stop taking their medication, their blood glucose will increase again.”
The bottom line
The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a large, multicenter research study with results published in 2002, found that simple changes such as modest weight loss, increased physical activity, and healthier dietary choices dramatically reduced the risk of developing diabetes. If you are at increased risk for diabetes, or have been diagnosed with prediabetes, it’s not too late. For some people with prediabetes, early treatment can actually return blood glucose levels to the normal range.
Talk to your primary care provider or certified diabetes educator about how you can decrease your risk for diabetes.
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Carmen is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management and nutrition therapy for chronic disease. In addition to nutrition counseling at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carmen teaches undergraduate health and wellness courses and provides corporate wellness seminars on exercise and nutrition.
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian, receiving her undergraduate degree in dietetics from James Madison University and her master’s degree in health education and administration from Towson University. She is a certified specialist in adult weight management and teaches cooking classes. Carmen enjoys educating her clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness. She also loves volunteering, including as a Girl Scout troop leader.