One of the best ways to prevent Type 2 diabetes? Eat like a diabetic.
That advice might sound counterintuitive, but researchers in Germany examining the effects of lifestyle choices on the mortality of people who have diabetes and people who don’t concluded that both groups benefited from the same advice for a healthy diet: pack in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, and limit your intake of butter, fried foods and sweetened soft drinks. Although the advice is the same, diabetics have a 62 percent higher mortality rate than nondiabetics, so they will see even greater benefits from maintaining a healthy diet.
“Several decades ago, we told people with diabetes to avoid all sugar and sweets, but that thinking has fallen by the wayside,” says Dr. Bob Cuddihy, head of Diabetes Medical for Sanofi U.S. “Now we don’t recommend an absolute prohibition of sweets, but a balanced diet that’s realistic and won’t make people feel deprived.”
The current figure is 1 in 10, but one-third of Americans could have diabetes by 2050, the Centers for Disease Control projected in 2010. The majority of people with diabetes, a metabolic disorder, have Type 2, which means that the body doesn’t use insulin — the means for getting glucose into your cells for energy — properly. This is referred to as insulin resistance; in response, the pancreas starts overproducing insulin to normalize blood glucose (sugar) levels, but over time it won’t be able to keep up.
“Consistently elevated blood sugar levels can put stress on the heart and affect blood flow to the extremities, causing long-term damage to your health,” says Abigail Kennedy-Grant, a registered dietitian at the Diabetes Center of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Although one of the risk factors for Type 2 diabetes is age — you’re at greater risk after the age of 40 — the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in young people is rising at an alarming rate.
Other risk factors are obesity, family history, having diabetes while pregnant, a sedentary lifestyle, and your race and ethnicity. African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and some Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes that Caucasians.
The increase in obesity rates is considered a major contributor to the rise in Type 2 diabetes cases. Sugary beverages are oft-cited contributors to the weight problem in the U.S.; study results published in April suggest that drinking even one can of soda per day can raise your risk for developing Type 2 diabetes by 22 percent. Despite the disease’s prevalence, lifestyle changes such as exercise and diet can help many people prevent it or bring it under control, even without medication.
Losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can reduce diabetes risk for overweight people, says Kennedy-Grant, who recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day and a mindful approach to eating. “It’s important to have a support system when it comes to food prep and shopping,” she adds. “Everyone in the family eating the same way and supporting each other rather than feeling like there needs to be two different meals will help kids learn to make healthier choices early on.”
If you are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Kennedy-Grant recommends seeking the help of a dietitian who can address your specific weight-loss and dietary needs.
Maintaining a heart-healthy diet that keeps your diabetes in check comes down to advance planning, especially during the holidays, she says.
“For example, at Thanksgiving, choose which high-carb foods you most want to have,” Kennedy-Grant suggests. “If you would feel deprived without a piece of pumpkin pie, make the choice in advance to have that instead of sweet potatoes with your main meal. Thinking ahead and controlling your intake of sugar can help keep blood sugar at healthy levels.”
It's also helpful to take baby steps toward making more healthful choices rather than attempting to completely overhaul your diet and exercise regimen all at once, Cuddihy says: “Don't just say, 'I'm going to join a gym and lose 40 pounds,' or 'I'm going to start eating healthy' — those are too broad. But deciding you're going to eat one portion of fresh fruits and vegetables three to four days a week or begin walking 15 minutes three times a week to start and then build up from there are reasonable and achievable goals.”