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Health Information | 09/16/2014

5 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes

By  Helen Mastro, MS, RD, CDE
fresh fruits and vegetables in a store

According to recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37 million American adults and children have Type 2 Diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, and that number has been steadily increasing over the past years. In addition, an alarming 96 million more individuals have prediabetes, which is diagnosed when your a1c is between 5.7 and 6.4 percent, and your fasting glucose is between 100 and 125 mg/dl. Unfortunately, prediabetes often progresses to diabetes, especially if you are overweight, sedentary, and have a family history of diabetes.

Left untreated, diabetes can lead to complications like heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy, or nerve damage. Diabetes also hits the wallet hard. On average, people with diabetes have health care costs 2.3 times higher than those who are healthy and without diabetes.

Hopefully, I’ve got your attention, because if you’re at risk for diabetes, there are at least five important lifestyle changes you can make today to reduce your risk and prevent or at least slow down the development of diabetes.

Get moving!

Almost none of us relish the thought of long hours of sweaty exercise, but that’s really not necessary. Just 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise, like brisk walking, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes by 30 percent. Using your muscles and making them work harder not only allows them to use up more glucose but also lets your body use insulin better, which takes the stress off of your insulin-producing cells. Further research suggests that adding a few days of strength training to that walking routine will reduce the risk by as much as 60 percent.

Make things more complex

Most people are aware that carbohydrate foods cause your blood sugar to increase, but not all carbs are bad. Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, legumes, and vegetables are healthy carbs that provide the glucose your body needs at a slow and steady rate. The more simple carbs – candy, desserts, sodas, juices, and even white bread – are the ones to limit. They can cause your blood sugar to rise too quickly and stress your insulin. Choose a small serving of a complex carb at every meal.

Lose a few pounds

Carrying excess weight increases your odds of developing diabetes dramatically, with those in the overweight category being seven times more likely to develop diabetes. If you’re in the obese category (body mass index >30), you are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop diabetes than someone with a healthy weight. Again, like exercise, you don’t have to strive for perfection. Research shows that losing just 7 to 10 percent of your current weight can cut your chances of developing type 2 diabetes in half.

Snack more

Eating a healthy, balanced snack in between smaller meals helps to control blood sugar and quell your hunger so you don’t overdo it at the next meal. Healthy snacks should consist of:
  • A fruit or vegetable (or ideally both)
  • A protein like low-fat cottage cheese, nonfat Greek yogurt, lean meat (turkey, chicken, or tuna), or a hard-boiled egg, AND
  • A complex carb like whole-wheat crackers or pita bread, or popcorn.

Including at least three different food groups in your snacks not only keeps things interesting, it really helps to fill and nourish your body so you have the energy you need to be more active during the day.

Add, don’t subtract

Rather than focusing on what you can’t have in your diet, which can leave you frustrated and feeling deprived, try to fill up on more of the healthy foods that are good for you. Even some occasional sweets and desserts can have their place if most of your diet is based on lots of fruits and vegetables (at least one or two servings at each meal and snack), complex carbs, some lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Diabetes can often be prevented if you take these steps early enough and stay on track with a healthy lifestyle. For more information on managing both diabetes and prediabetes, talk to your healthcare provider.

Updated January 2023

About The Author

Helen Mastro, MS, RD, CDE

Helen Mastro has been with Atrius Health since 1993 and sees patients at our Somerville and Wellesley practice locations. While she provides medical nutrition therapy education for a wide variety of nutritional problems, she has a particular interest in the areas of diabetes education, obesity, and pediatric nutrition.

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