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Is Diabetes Preventable Through Healthy Habits?

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Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to regulate the use of glucose (sugar) as energy or fuel. It is caused by two interrelated problems—the inability of the pancreas to produce enough insulin (a hormone that controls the movement of sugar) and cells in the body developing insulin resistance (responding poorly to the hormone). Diabetes is a chronic (long-term) condition for which there is no cure. The high blood sugar levels in people with diabetes can eventually affect various organs and cause serious health problems. 

Some 35 million people in the U.S. (roughly 10% of the population) have diabetes. Approximately 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes each year. Many people have diabetes but remain undiagnosed. While genetics does play a role, diabetes is primarily a lifestyle disease. Healthy habits like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly can prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. Please continue reading to learn more about diabetes prevention and the steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing this disease.

What factors increase the risk of diabetes?

Some factors that increase your risk of diabetes are not in your control. For example, a family history of diabetes (diabetes in a parent or sibling) is a risk factor. Also, certain races such as African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American people have a higher risk of developing diabetes than White people, due to genetics. The older you get, the more your diabetes risk—type 2 diabetes is prevalent in middle-aged adults above age 45.

But diabetes prevention is not completely out of your hands. Being overweight or obese is the main risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Therefore, losing weight can reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Additionally, fat distribution plays a role. Those who store fat mainly in the belly area are at higher risk of diabetes. A waist size of 40 inches or more in men and 35 inches or more in women is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Another key lifestyle factor that affects the risk of diabetes is physical activity. Not only does physical activity help to keep body weight under control, but it also uses up sugar as energy and increases the sensitivity of cells to the insulin hormone.

Your cholesterol values also affect your risk of diabetes. People with low HDL (good cholesterol) and high levels of triglycerides have a higher diabetes risk.

Keep in mind that if you have prediabetes, a condition in which your blood sugar levels are high but not high enough to be called diabetes, you are at increased risk. Meaning, prediabetes increases your risk of eventually progressing to type 2 diabetes. Women who develop gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) are also at higher risk, as are women with a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Can healthy people get high blood sugar and diabetes?

While excess body weight is one of the main risk factors for diabetes, you don’t have to be overweight or obese to get diabetes. Meaning, although obese individuals have an increased risk, thin people can also develop type 2 diabetes. In fact, around 10-15% of people with type 2 diabetes are at a healthy body weight. It occurs due to the body not making enough insulin or not responding to the hormone very well. Genetics and lifestyle can both play a role in developing type 2 diabetes in people with a normal body weight (BMI less than 25). A family history of diabetes and childhood malnutrition are known risk factors for lean diabetes.

Can type 2 diabetes be prevented through diet and exercise?

There is overwhelming evidence that lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise play a key role in diabetes prevention. In other words, an increase in physical activity and a healthy diet leading to weight loss can significantly reduce diabetes risk. 

Studies have shown that lifestyle changes focused on physical activity and diet can reduce diabetes risk by as much as 58% in people with impaired glucose tolerance (the blood glucose is higher than normal, but is not high enough to warrant a diabetes diagnosis). 

What’s more, in people with a family history of type 2 diabetes, the genetic predisposition can be offset by lifestyle changes. Meaning, healthy lifestyle changes can mitigate the effects of genes and prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes. 

What are some natural methods of diabetes prevention?

Lose weight

Excess weight is the single most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Overweight people (BMI 25-30) have a 7 times higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people with a normal body weight. Obesity (BMI 30 or above) increases diabetes risk by 20 to 40 times compared to people with a healthy body weight. A 16% reduction in the risk of diabetes has been observed for every kilogram of body weight lost. In overweight or obese individuals, losing just 7-10% of the total body weight can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by half. 

Become physically active

Not only does physical activity promote weight loss, but it also makes your muscles work harder and improves their ability to respond to insulin. This puts less stress on the cells that make insulin in the pancreas. You don’t need to perform intensive, long workouts to prevent type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that moderate physical activity such as brisk walking for 30 minutes every day or 5 hours per week can reduce diabetes risk by 30%. Therefore, switching time spent in front of a computer screen or TV for something more active is a natural and effective way to help prevent diabetes.

Fine-Tune Your Diet

Diet and healthy eating play a key role in diabetes prevention. Experts recommend four dietary changes that can have a big impact on your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. To make healthy choices, you should pick whole grains over refined grains and processed carbohydrates, drink water instead of sweetened beverages, eat foods containing healthy fats and fiber, and limit your intake of red meats and processed meats, choosing poultry or fish instead.

Quit smoking 

People who smoke are 30-40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to nonsmokers. Heavy smokers have an even higher diabetes risk. Therefore, quitting smoking is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make for diabetes prevention. In people who already have diabetes, smoking makes it harder to regulate blood sugar and manage the disease (nicotine makes insulin hormone less effective). Smokers are also at a high risk of diabetes complications.

Limit alcohol consumption

Moderate alcohol consumption is known to reduce the risk of heart disease. The same is true for type 2 diabetes. Moderate alcohol intake (1 drink a day for women, 2 drinks a day for men) can help increase insulin efficiency. However, while moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk, excess alcohol can lead to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you don’t drink, don’t star—you can get more benefits in terms of diabetes prevention through lifestyle changes—losing weight, eating healthy, and being physically active.

Please keep in mind that while this health information is generally valid for most people, you should always get medical advice before starting any diet or exercise program or undertaking lifestyle changes for diabetes prevention.
 

References:

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/disease-prevention/diabetes-prevention/preventing-diabetes-full-story/
  2. https://www.diabetes.org/resources/statistics/statistics-about-diabetes
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-2-diabetes/in-depth/diabetes-prevention/art-20047639
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6125024/
  5. https://www.geisinger.org/health-and-wellness/wellness-articles/2018/03/05/21/59/yes-thin-people-can-get-type-2-diabetes#
  6. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-information/cigarette-smoking-risk-factor-type-2-diabetes#