Preventing diabetes: Small changes, big rewards

Learn how to reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is a condition that causes your blood sugar levels to be higher than normal. The most common form of the disease, type 2 diabetes, can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. However, with proper diagnosis and treatment, you may be able to prevent the complications of diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 30.3 million Americans have diabetes, including 7.2 million who are undiagnosed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 90 to 95 percent of diabetics have type 2 diabetes, while the others have type 1 diabetes (a condition that usually affects children and young adults).

What is prediabetes?

Before people develop type 2 diabetes, they almost always have prediabetes, a condition where your sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 84.1 million Americans age 18 and older have prediabetes. You can have prediabetes for years without any symptoms, so it often goes undetected. In fact, 90 percent of those with the condition don’t know they have it.

People with prediabetes may be able to prevent it from progressing to type 2 diabetes by making small changes in their diet and being more physically active. Living a healthy lifestyle can help some prediabetics return blood sugar levels to the normal range.

Are you at risk?

A number of factors can increase your risk of developing diabetes. If you have any of the following risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting your blood sugar tested:

  • Being overweight
  • Being 45 years or older
  • Having a parent, brother, or sister with diabetes
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Being physically active less than three times a week

Women who had gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or gave birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds are at risk.

Race and ethnicity are also a factor. African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans are at higher risk.

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes are often hard to spot and so mild they go unnoticed. Early detection and treatment can decrease the risk of developing complications, so if you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor. It’s important to get tested right away so you can start managing the disease.

Diabetes symptoms include:

  • Being very thirsty
  • Urinating often
  • Feeling very hungry, even though you’re eating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Sores that are slow to heal
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet

Preventing diabetes starts with small changes

According to the American Diabetes Association, taking a few simple steps may help prevent prediabetes and lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you need to overhaul your lifestyle. Small changes in your diet and adopting other healthy habits can go a long way.

Most people find it easier to make healthy lifestyle changes one step at a time. The key is to set realistic, achievable goals within a timeframe that works for you.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you have prediabetes and are overweight, losing a small amount of weight may help lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, losing just five to seven percent of your body weight can make a big difference. For example, a 200-pound person would just need to drop 10 to 14 pounds.

Weight loss can be hard. And losing weight takes time. Following a few simple tips can help you lose weight and keep it off:

  1. Cut back on calories and fat.

  2. Be physically active most days of the week.

  3. Eat breakfast every day.

  4. Weigh yourself at least once a week.

  5. Watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.

Be active

Regular exercise is the key to long-lasting weight loss. Even if you’ve never exercised before, you can find ways to add physical activity to your day. The key is to find activities you enjoy. And try to fit spurts of physical activity throughout your day. Of course, always check with your doctor before you start an exercise program.

Tips to help you get started exercising:

  1. Skip the elevator and take the stairs.

  2. Do squats while you brush your teeth.

  3. Do push-ups during TV commercials. Better yet, turn off the tube and go for a walk with a friend.

  4. At the grocery store, park as far away from the entrance as possible.

  5. Take up gardening.

  6. Turn on some music and dance.

  7. Take a short, brisk walk during your lunch break or after dinner.

  8. If you have knee or joint problems, go swimming at your local gym or community pool.

Before long, physical activity will become part of your life. Over time, the CDC recommends that healthy people get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, including brisk walking or similar activities. That’s just 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Eat right

A healthy diet is also a key to lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes. Try to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. And cut back on foods that are high in saturated and trans-fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugar.

Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. One quarter of it should be a carbohydrate, such as brown rice or a baked sweet potato. The other quarter should be a lean protein, like baked salmon or a skinless chicken breast.

Follow these healthy eating tips:

  1. Always eat breakfast. Don’t skip this meal in hopes of losing weight.

  2. Take your morning coffee black or with nonfat milk.

  3. Brown-bag your lunch instead of going out.

  4. Use smaller plates. It’s a great way to control portion sizes.

  5. Stock up on healthy snacks. Skip the candy bar and reach for a piece of fruit or low-fat string cheese instead.

  6. Switch from regular to diet soda. Or just drink water.

  7. Make dinner at home and save eating out for special occasions.

Diabetes prevention starts with small steps for your health

Taking small steps to live a healthier life may help lower your risk of developing diabetes. It can also help control your blood pressure and cholesterol. You’ll be healthier and probably feel a lot better, too.