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New research shows that diet and exercise are the best ways to avoid, as well as manage, type 2 diabetes. Getty Images
  • A healthy lifestyle can lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 75 percent, according to new research.
  • Living healthy can also lower your risk for cardiovascular disease by 49 percent.
  • Experts say a lifestyle plan should take into account a person’s behavior patterns, culture, and surrounding environment.

The choices you make on a daily basis play a major role in your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, according to recent research published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

Researchers determined that people with the healthiest lifestyle have a 75 percent lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes as well as a 49 percent lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

Those with the healthiest lifestyle also have a 31 percent lower risk of dying from cancer and a 56 percent lower risk of dying from any cause.

The study included 1.1 million participants who hadn’t yet received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, along with an additional 10 studies with participants who already had a diagnosis.

Participants were from all over the globe, including the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Age ranges were 46 to 69 years old, with lifestyle habits and diabetes risk assessed anywhere from 4 to 21 years.

To assess a participant’s overall health, the lifestyle factors included habits involving nutrition, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, body weight, obesity, sleep quality, and sleep duration.

After reviewing all of the data, researchers concluded that the percentage of participants who qualified as living the “healthiest” lifestyle possible was low across the board and across the globe.

Based on averages from all of the gathered data, approximately 14 percent of people live the healthiest lifestyle, compared to 11 percent living the least healthy lifestyle.

“It’s clear from the results, say the authors, that there is clearly large room for improvement in lifestyle across all countries,” said An Pan, PhD, and Yanbo Zhang, study authors from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

“This research is great because it takes the whole person into account,” Sherri Isaak, MS, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, a lifestyle coach, told Healthline. “It’s not just one thing. It’s not just exercise or just smoking or just your diet.”

Isaak coaches patients in all aspects of their lifestyle habits — with an emphasis on nutrition — through Cecelia Health and at Isaak Nutrition Solutions, working alongside a concierge physician.

“Traditionally, patients go into the doctor and are vaguely told to lose weight and exercise more. And it’s frustrating, too, because healthcare providers don’t have a lot of time to talk,” Isaak said.

“They need more than one doctor’s visit a couple of times a year to make real lifestyle changes. They need continual support to really change behavior,” she said.

The process of changing any habit in a person’s lifestyle, such as physical activity, diet, smoking, or alcohol use, doesn’t happen overnight, or even over the course of several weeks.

Instead, Isaak stresses that these are gradual changes, each with an entirely new learning curve. And as your life changes, the challenges and obstacles a person faces in managing their health also change.

“One of my patients was doing great in making long-term changes in his habits around food, for example,” Isaak said, “but then he got a different job and was traveling constantly, which meant eating at restaurants 5 days a week. He had to learn how to make healthy choices in an entirely different environment.”

Isaak recalls another patient who’d made tremendous progress in lowering his blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But when his parents both became ill, his energy and focus inevitably moved to them.

“His habits changed because his life changed, so he had to find a different approach to healthy eating while supporting his parents,” Isaak said.

Isaak recalls another patient who had a habit of eating several handfuls of a specific candy every single day. After looking more closely at why he was doing this to his own detriment, he was able to recognize that the candy reminded him of his deceased grandmother, who was his primary caregiver growing up.

“We have to look at a person’s personality, the way their life works, the emotional connection they’re having to food, and the real reasons behind their choices,” Isaak said.

She points out that while some people may do well with an eating plan that focuses on counting macronutrient grams such as fat and carbohydrates, other people hate numbers and the rigid thinking that’s required in that approach.

Any type of support needs to be shaped around their personality, their history with food, and the details of their life.

Another person had been struggling with yo-yo dieting her entire life before working with Isaak. Once she was able to take the emphasis off following one particular restrictive eating plan and focus on the bigger picture, she began to manage her health in a sustainable way.

“It was a combination of things,” Isaak said. “First of all, she was working with healthcare professionals who were actually able to spend time talking with her, which demonstrates how much we do care.”

The person also expressed great appreciation for understanding the science behind the unsustainable fad diets she had been struggling to find long-term success with, and a more realistic, balanced approach to a predominantly plant-based diet.

“You have to help them find their inspiration,” Isaak said. “Why do they want to make these changes in their life?”

One limiting aspect of the study is that most of the research was conducted in high-income countries. Most participants were white.

Additionally, the age range, starting at age 46 years old, overlooks the increasing rates of type 2 diabetes in children and young adults.

Had this research included young participants, less affluent populations, and other cultures, it would’ve encountered factors that significantly affect a person’s habits, including religion, access to healthcare, and health literacy.

Research published in 2016 in The Lancet tracked global diabetes rates from 1980 to 2014. It highlighted that affluent English-speaking countries had the lowest rates of diabetes compared to Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Africa, and central Asia.

In countries with starch-based diets, such as China, India, and Mexico, in which rice or corn is part of many daily meals, obesity rates are at nearly 50 percent of the population, much like the United States.

While genes do play a role in a person’s risk for diabetes, research continues to show that modifications in diet and lifestyle can largely prevent the condition.

“When you’re working with different populations, cultures, and religions, you can’t simply tell them to avoid this or that when it’s a core part of their belief system,” Isaak said.

“Instead, I would try to teach someone about portion sizes and how even healthy foods impact your blood sugar levels, too. What other foods do they have access to that might help bring more balance to their diet?” she said.

Isaak adds that even in the United States, it’s easy to forget that many families are struggling with limited access to any food, let alone the healthiest food.

Many people across the globe also don’t have access to affordable healthcare and medication, including those in the most affluent countries.

Ginger Vieira is an expert patient living with type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and fibromyalgia. Find her diabetes books on Amazon and connect with her on Twitter and YouTube.