Even people at high risk can cut that risk in half through better lifestyle choices like healthier eating, getting more activity and losing weight. If you’ve been told that you have pre-diabetes, these lifestyle changes can slow or halt the progression of diabetes. The same changes can also lower the chances of developing heart disease and some cancers, so they have total wellness benefits, too.
According to data from the landmark Nurses’ Health Study I & II, healthy lifestyle habits can significantly counter even strong genetic risks for type 2 diabetes: Women least likely to develop diabetes are at a healthy weight with a body mass index under 25, eat a healthy diet, exercise for 30 minutes or more every day, don’t smoke and have about three alcoholic drinks per week. Data from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which looked at men, showed that men, too, can benefit from the same healthy lifestyle choices. Here’s how.
Control Your Weight.
Excess weight is the single most important cause of type 2 diabetes. Being overweight increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes seven times, and being obese increases it by up to 40 times more than people at a healthy weight. Losing just 7 to 10 percent of your current weight can cut your chances of developing type 2 diabetes in half.
Eat Healthier Foods.
Diet isn’t only about less calories, it’s also about eating the foods that offer the best nutrition. In general, you want to choose foods that are lower in fat and calories and higher in fiber by focusing on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Research into diabetes prevention found that these four key diet changes had the greater effect on lowering diabetes risk:
Replace refined carbohydrates with whole grains. Processed carbs include regular pasta, white rice, white bread, typical breakfast cereals and foods made with white flour, which is refined. Refining takes out the healthful bran and fiber from the grain.
Instead, aim for three servings a day of whole grains like whole-wheat pasta, brown or wild rice, whole grains like barley and quinoa, whole wheat and whole grain breads, whole grain breakfast cereals like bran flakes and oats and other foods made from whole grains. Whole grains aren’t as easily converted to sugar as refined grains, so you experience a lower, slower increase in blood sugar.
Replace sugary drinks with water, coffee, or tea instead. Sugar is a refined carbohydrate, too. The Nurses Health Study found that even one sugar-sweetened beverage a day could raise the risk of type 2 diabetes by 80 percent compared to women who drank less than one such drink a month. It’s important to know that even healthy sounding drinks, like 100-percent fruit juice, can be nearly as dangerous because of their high sugar content. Sugar can add to diabetes risk indirectly—by causing weight gain—and directly by increasing diabetes risk factors like chronic inflammation, high blood fats called triglycerides and lowered HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol).
Water is the number one beverage—no fat, sugar or calories. But it’s okay to drink coffee and tea, both caffeinated and decaf, as long as you don’t add cream and sugar.
Replace saturated fats with healthier fats. The two types of dangerous fats are saturated fat found in animal foods from butter to beef (that white marbling is pure fat), and trans fat, found in many fast-food restaurant foods, packaged foods including those with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredients list (it preserves their shelf life) and solid fats like some margarines. Instead choose poly- and mono-unsaturated fats found in liquid oils as well as in nuts and seeds.
Replace unhealthy protein with good-for-you sources. Research shows that eating even a small 3-ounce serving of red meat—beef, pork, lamb—every day raises diabetes risk, and the risk from processed meat like bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts is even greater. Healthy protein sources include fish, skinless chicken, nuts, no- and low-fat dairy, poultry, and beans.
Increase Your Activity Level.
A sedentary lifestyle is another serious risk factor for diabetes, whereas working your muscles (exercising) boosts their ability to use insulin and absorb glucose. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity like brisk walking, every day. If you can’t fit in one long workout, do three 10-minute sessions throughout the day, like before each meal (this may help reduce your appetite, too).
Studies have found a notable link between watching TV and developing diabetes. This could be because people tend to eat mindlessly while they watch and are already overweight and inactive. Try limiting viewing time and, when you do watch, march in place or do weight-resistance exercise during the commercials.
Lung cancer and other lung diseases aren’t the only risks from smoking. Smokers are nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes than non-smokers, and if you’re a heavy smoker, your risk is even greater. Quitting requires a commitment.