Reducing the Risk of Diabetes

More than 25 million Americans have diabetes.  In 2010, nearly 2 million people were diagnosed in one year, a national record.  The numbers continue to soar as an estimated 79 million Americans have prediabetes, which can transition into diabetes.  With diabetes as a leading risk factor for heart disease and the seventh leading cause of death in the US, what can you do to reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes?



Understand the Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

You triple your risk for a cardiovascular event and double your risk for death if you are living with Type 2 diabetes.  Understanding what leads to Type 2 diabetes and taking the appropriate steps for prevention can dramatically improve your life.  If you are already living with Type 2 diabetes, there are advancements in medication therapies as well as weight loss surgery options that are showing improvement and even reversal of Type 2 diabetes for many patients. 

Know the Numbers

If you believe you could have prediabetes or diabetes, the best course of action is to consult with your physician.  Tests can determine if you have prediabetes or diabetes: a fasting lipid panel, an Hg1A1C test, fasting plasma glucose test (FPG), and an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT).  Results from these tests will determine if you do in fact have prediabetes or diabetes.  Here is a graphic that shows what is normal, prediabetes range and diabetes range.

Image Courtesy of American Diabetes Association



If you have prediabetes or diabetes, it is important to pay careful attention to the amount of carbohydrates (as well as total calories, fats and proteins that you are consuming).  These can elevate your blood sugar levels.  Persistently high blood sugar levels can act like “slow-acting poison” to certain tissues in your body, especially your kidneys, nerves and retina in the back of your eyes; further, very high levels can virtually paralyze what insulin-producing cells you have left in your pancreas (i.e., glucotoxicity), further exacerbating the hyperglycemia. 

You can achieve a healthy diet by understanding the “ABCs” of diabetes.  A, or A1C test, measures your average blood sugar over the past three months.  B stands for blood pressure and C stands for cholesterol (or specifically , non-HDL cholesterol).  If you have diabetes, the ABCs need to be as close to normal levels as possible.

When it comes to food choices, aim to eat the foods that keep your blood sugar levels as balanced as possible.  Quality carbohydrates and fats include: vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fruit for carbs; and fish, nuts, avocado, olives, extra virgin olive oil, and canola oil for fats.  The American Diabetes Association is a good resource for recipes and guidelines to help keep your blood sugar in check.


Exercise can improve your overall health and especially energize insulin receptors in muscle and fat cells, regardless of whether you have prediabetes or diabetes.  However, two new studies show the positive relationship between lifting weights and diabetes.  In one study by the Harvard School of Public Medicine, more than 32,000 men were evaluated to measure the impact of aerobic activity, weightlifting and both on preventing diabetes versus those who did not work out.  The findings concluded those who were physically activity decreased their risk for developing Type 2 diabetes by 34%, while those who combined weightlifting with aerobic exercise decreased their risk by 59% compared to those who did not work out.  Average length of workout during the study was only 30 minutes a day, or 2.5 hours a week.

The second study, by researchers at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Nuthetal, found that those who are living with diabetes can extend their lives by including low-impact physical activity in their weekly routines.   Moderately active men with diabetes decreased their risk of dying by any cause by 38% and were 49% less likely to die of heart disease than inactive men.   Even low-impact exercise including walking, gardening and general housework improved their risk of dying.

Age, Gender and Family History

If you are over the age of 45, a male, and have a parent or sibling who also has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, you have non-modifiable risk factors that put you at an increased risk for developing diabetes.  As we age, our metabolism slows down and we are more likely to put on additional weight.  Added “belly fat” is a risk factor for diabetes.   Being aware of these factors is important early to take steps to prevent the onset of prediabetes and diabetes. 

For some, just having a family history of diabetes can be a motivator in early lifestyle modifications.  One study found that people who have and are aware of a family history of diabetes are more likely to eat 5 or more servings of fruit or vegetables a day and are more likely to understand risk factors for diabetes and participate in diabetes screenings.

Early Detection, Prevention Key

Earlier this year, the CDC released a report finding the number of teens 12 – 19 years old who are diabetic or pre-diabetic has jumped from 9 percent (1999 – 2000) to 23 percent (2007 – 2008) in less than a decade.  As a result, today’s teens are at an increased risk for heart disease and stroke, unlike any previous generation.  Prevention is key to decreasing your risk for developing diabetes and heart disease.  If you believe your lifestyle is putting your health at risk, consult with a physician to take the appropriate steps to increasing the quality and longevity of your life.