Diabetes contributes to many other serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and stroke. It is also the leading cause of new cases of blindness in adults in the United States.
Type 1 diabetes is not currently preventable. Therefore, this article focuses on how to prevent type 2 diabetes.
Eating a nutritious diet is an important part of preventing diabetes. Research shows that one of the most effective ways to prevent diabetes in people with excess body weight is to lose weight, which is possible through making the right food choices and reducing calories.
Along with eating less to reduce calories overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend eating whole grain foods instead of processed foods. Whole grains have essential vitamins and fiber that your body needs but also carry a lower glycemic index, which helps stabilize blood sugar. Nonstarchy vegetables and fresh fruit can be beneficial, as well.
In addition, it is important to try to limit fruit juice and drinks with added sugar. A 2019 study found that drinking sugary beverages or artificially sweetened drinks raises the risk of developing diabetes. Replacing one sugary drink with coffee, tea, or water each day can lower your risk of diabetes by 2–10%.
It is helpful to understand the difference between healthy and harmful fats. It is best to avoid or limit trans fats — the type in fried foods and many packaged baked goods — and saturated fats, which are in fatty meat, processed meat, and full fat dairy products. You can check for trans fats in foods by looking for “partially hydrogenated” fats on product labels.
On the other hand, the fats in nuts and seeds and the polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oil can protect cardiovascular health.
Limiting the amount of red meat you consume and focusing on leaner proteins can also be beneficial. Researchers have found that people who follow a vegetarian diet reduce their risk of developing diabetes by 74% compared with those who eat meat weekly.
Physical activity can help you manage your blood sugar levels, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes. It also offers various other benefits, such as:
- lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol
- controlling blood pressure
- improve sleep
- assisting in weight loss
- mood improvement
- helping with weight maintenance
The CDC recommends aiming for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical exercise per week. It helps to pick an activity you enjoy so that you are more likely to stick with it. There are many options to choose from, including:
- walking briskly
- mowing the lawn
- Bicycling or indoor cycling
- playing team sports, such as basketball or tennis
- doing strength training
Before starting a new exercise plan, check with your doctor to determine whether the exercise you have in mind is safe for you. Then schedule it daily or a few times a week to make it a habit. You may find it easier to stick to your goals if you exercise with friends.
Although a multifaceted approach is the best way to prevent diabetes, reducing weight is often an essential factor. For people with excess body weight, a small percentage of weight loss — 5–7% of body weight — goes a long way toward preventing diabetes. For a person weighing 200 pounds (lb), this means aiming for a weight loss of 10–14 lb. Losing weight helps your body control blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, and lower high blood pressure, all of which help prevent diabetes.
It is easy to underestimate food portion sizes, so experts recommend using the plate method to control portions. For example, imagine a moderate-sized 9-inch plate. Half of it should contain nonstarchy vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots. The remaining half should comprise equal quantities of healthy carbohydrates, such as starchy vegetables or whole grains, and lean proteins, such as tofu, beans, chicken, or turkey.
Another way to help prevent diabetes is to stop smoking. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), people who smoke are 30–40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. When you stop smoking, you also significantly lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and other serious conditions.
The CDC also lists stress management and adequate sleep as important factors in reversing or preventing insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.
If you have known risk factors for type 2 diabetes, you may wish to talk with a doctor about the drug metformin. A 2018 review of several studies concluded that metformin might help prevent diabetes in people who:
- have impaired glucose tolerance or fasting glucose
- are less than 60 years old
- are overweight or have obesity
- have a history of gestational diabetes, which is diabetes that develops during pregnancy
Frequently asked questions
Here are some commonly asked questions about preventing diabetes. Dr. Kelly Wood has reviewed the answers.
Can walking help prevent diabetes?
Yes, brisk walks can play a role in preventing diabetes. The CDC recommends getting about 150 minutes of exercise each week. This could involve walking or other moderately intense activities, such as swimming or bicycling.
How can I check whether I have diabetes?
To check for diabetes, doctors typically use blood tests to assess your blood sugar levels. They may also ask you about your medical history and whether you are experiencing any symptoms. Common symptoms of diabetes include increased urination, fatigue, excessive thirst or hunger, and unexplained weight loss.
Making gradual changes to your lifestyle can help prevent diabetes. A nutritious, well-balanced diet will help with controlling blood sugar levels and maintaining a moderate weight. Whole grains, fruit, and nonstarchy vegetables are all good choices to include in your eating plan.
In addition, regular exercise can play a role in diabetes prevention. Not only can it help you lose weight, if necessary, but it can also help you manage your stress levels.
And finally, quitting smoking can significantly lower your risk of developing diabetes. It can also reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and other conditions.
If you need help, consider contacting a registered dietitian or certified fitness professional to help you create a plan that is right for you.