6 Tips for Preventing Type 2 Diabetes

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on August 11, 2016Written by Annette McDermott

How common is it?

Over 29 million people in the United States have diabetes. Chances are good the condition will impact you or someone you know at some point in your life. There are two main types of diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t produce insulin. This type only accounts for about 5 percent of all diabetes cases. It can’t be prevented, but it can be managed.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 95 percent of all diabetes cases. It causes abnormally high blood sugar levels. The condition occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or becomes insulin-resistant, or, most likely, both. Lifestyle factors such as being sedentary and overweight contribute to your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Changing those lifestyle factors may reduce your risk of getting the condition.

Tip #1: Eat well

prevent diabetes through diet

Eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. To improve your diet:

  • Replace full-fat dairy products with low-fat versions.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat leaner cuts of meat and poultry.
  • Eat more fiber and whole, less processed grains.
  • Avoid or limit sodas, fruit juices, sweets, and processed foods.
  • Choose healthy unsaturated fats, limit saturated fats, and limit or avoid trans fats.

Special emphasis should be placed on eating more fiber and managing total carbohydrate intake. Both will help you control your blood sugar. Fiber also helps you feel fuller longer and slows down digestion, so you’re less likely to overeat or reach for a bag of cookies later in the day. If you need help with your diet, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian.

Tip #2: Maintain a healthy weight

prevent diabetes through healthy weight

You don’t have to lose a huge amount of weight to help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. A modest 5 to 7 percent weight loss is all it takes. If you’re eating healthfully and moving more, you should have an easier time keeping the number on the scale consistent. Other steps that help you maintain a healthy weight are:

  • Watch your food portions.
  • Burn extra calories by taking the stairs, walking to the store instead of driving, and getting up and dancing or jogging in place during television commercial breaks.
  • Flavor foods with spices and fresh herbs instead of high-calorie sauces and dressings.
  • Replace juice and soda with water infused with fresh fruit.

Tip #3 Stay active

prevent diabetes through exercise

Being active is a great way to stay healthy overall and help prevent type 2 diabetes. It helps your body be more sensitive to insulin. In turn, this helps your body use glucose more effectively and manage your blood sugar levels. It also reduces your risk of complications if you already have diabetes.

Exercise is especially beneficial when combined with a healthy diet. Research has shown that people at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes can cut their risk in half by eating a high-fiber diet that provides healthy fats, whole grains, and healthy protein, and exercising for 30 minutes daily. A landmark study found that regular exercise and eating a healthy diet was more effective at preventing type 2 diabetes than the diabetes drug metformin in people with prediabetes blood sugar levels. Regular diet and exercise can reduce your risk by 58 percent.

Tip #4: Quit smoking

prevent diabetes by not smoking

You’re 30 to 40 percent more likely to get diabetes if you smoke. The more cigarettes you smoke, the more your risk increases. Smokers with diabetes may have a tougher time than nonsmokers managing the condition. They are also more likely to develop serious complications, such as:

  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • leg ulcers or amputation caused by poor blood flow
  • eye disease
  • nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy)

Tip #5: Watch your blood pressure

prevent diabetes by watching blood pressure

Two out of 3 people with diabetes have high blood pressure or take blood pressure medications. Not only does high blood pressure increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, but also heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. Blood pressure is considered high if it’s 140/90 or above. Healthy blood pressure levels are generally considered to be below 120/80. High blood pressure usually causes no symptoms, so check your numbers frequently.

Tip # 6: Keep triglycerides low and HDLs high

prevent diabetes by managing triglycerides and HDL

It’s common for people with type 2 diabetes to have low HDL (good) cholesterol and high triglycerides, even when blood sugar is well-managed. Type 2 diabetes may lower HDL cholesterol and increase LDL (bad) cholesterol. This is known as diabetic dyslipidemia and may lead to heart disease or stroke. Research shows a connection between insulin resistance and diabetic dyslipidemia.

Symptoms to look out for

Some people have type 2 diabetes for years before they experience symptoms. Many people never experience symptoms. Common symptoms that may occur are:

  • frequent thirst
  • increased urination
  • extreme hunger
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • blurry vision
  • wounds that heal slowly
  • frequent infections
  • patches of darkened skin, often in your armpits and neck

When to see a doctor

If you’re experiencing symptoms of diabetes, see your doctor. They will run tests to determine if you have the condition or if you have prediabetes. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for diabetes if:

  • you’re 45 or older and overweight
  • you’re under 45, overweight, and have a family history or other risk factor for diabetes

What you can do now

Don’t wait until you can’t fit into your favorite jeans or your blood pressure is high to make healthy lifestyle changes. If you know your diet needs an overhaul or you spend too much time on the couch, take steps to stay ahead of weight gain.

Physical activity doesn’t have to be super intense or boring. Any activity that gets your body moving, your heart pumping, and makes you break a sweat is beneficial. Swimming, walking, yoga, gardening, hiking, biking, and dancing are all great options. Aim for 30 minutes a day.

To help you stay on track with your diet and exercise, use a food and activity tracker. Because lifestyle changes may be challenging, enlist a close friend or family member to join you in your efforts and keep you accountable.

If you smoke, talk to your doctor about the best smoking cessation program for you. For additional resources, check out the National Diabetes Prevention Program.

Keep reading: Diabetes and diet: What’s the connection? »

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