Blog Post

Reducing your risk for diabetes

By Carol Meerschaert

Type 2 diabetes, a disease in which your body doesn’t use insulin properly, is common among older adults. However, there are many things you can do to lower your risk. While some risk factors for the disease cannot be changed, such as a family history of diabetes or your age, you can do something to control the most common risk factors for diabetes, which include being overweight, having high blood pressure and being physically inactive.

Diabetes and older adults

Type 1 diabetes occurs, usually in children or young adults, when the body does not produce enough insulin, a hormone that moves blood sugar into cells so you burn it as energy. Type 2 diabetes, which is most commonly diagnosed between 45 and 64, occurs when the body produces insulin but you become resistant to it, so the insulin can’t do its job properly. Your glucose, or blood sugar, then rises and causes problems that can lead to heart disease, problems with the nerves in your feet and more.

You may have been told that you have prediabetes, meaning that your blood sugar level is higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.

“I’ve worked with hundreds of people who were told they had prediabetes,” says Theresa Wright, a registered dietician and owner of Renaissance Nutrition Center Inc. in Plymouth Meeting. “They took it as a warning call. We created a customized meal plan. They stopped eating low-nutrient foods, increased their activity level, lost weight and got their blood sugar back to normal.”

Preventing Type 2 diabetes

As many as one in three American adults, or 84 million people, have prediabetes. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates that 9 in 10 people with prediabetes don’t know they have it. The ADA recommends having your blood sugar levels checked regularly. If you have diabetes risk factors or prediabetes, losing weight if you’re overweight lowers your risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

The great news is that losing even a small amount of weight makes a huge difference. According to the ADA, a 5-7% reduction in weight reduces the risk for diabetes by 58%. That means that a 200-pound person would need to lose just 10-14 pounds. But it’s not just about weight. Paying attention to what you eat can lower your risk for diabetes, even if you are not overweight.

Good nutrition may help you to both lose weight and to control your blood pressure, both risk factors for diabetes. If you have dieted for years and have trouble losing weight or maintaining your weight loss or struggle with proper nutrition, try these tips. Eat more fruits and veggies The Nurses’ Health Study, a study of more than 70,000 nurses, showed that eating green leafy vegetables and fruit was associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Other very large studies have found that people who ate more fresh fruit – especially blueberries, grapes and apples – had a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Studies also show that people who ate more fruits and vegetables were more likely to lose weight. Vegetables and fruits are naturally low in sodium and contain other minerals that lower blood pressure. They are also very low in fat and calories, which can help you lose weight. Read the labels on canned foods to make sure there is little or no salt added.

Keep track of what you eat

Wright suggests keeping track of what you eat to keep your diet in check. You can use a smartphone app to track your food or write it down on paper. “For five to seven days, write down everything you eat,” she says. “All of it. Every piece of candy off a colleague’s desk, the cookie your grandchild did not eat and the food you tasted while cooking dinner.” Once you have a food log of a few days, get a set of colored pencils or crayons. Circle each fruit and vegetable with green, foods with added fat in black, foods with added sugar in blue and foods with added salt in red.

This gives you a colorful, quick nutritional assessment. Do you see lots of black and blue circles on your log, but hardly any green? This is a clear sign that you probably need to include more produce in your diet. The U.S. government suggests you eat at least two cups of vegetables every day.

Get moving

Another large part of the diabetes prevention equation is activity. The ADA recommends a combination of aerobic activity with strength or resistance training for diabetes prevention. Aerobic exercise is recommended for diabetes prevention because it helps your body use insulin better, improves blood circulation, and reduces your risk for heart disease by lowering blood glucose and blood pressure as well as improving cholesterol levels.

The recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week – or a total of 150 minutes per week – may seem daunting. But keep in mind that any brisk activity adds up. If you’re not active, start out slow with just 10 minutes a day, then work up to the recommended amount over several weeks. Spread your activity out over at least three days during the week, and try not to go more than two days in a row without exercising. If you’re new to exercise or just don’t like it, a brisk walking plan is a good place to start. Many smartphones track your steps with an app on your phone. You can also get a pedometer to count the steps.

Many health insurance companies have a program where you count the steps you take each day to help you stay active and will give you a pedometer for free. To increase your steps, try a new exercise class, join a mall-waking program or just walk around the house during TV commercials. Strength training makes your body more sensitive to insulin and can lower blood sugar. It also builds muscle. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn – even when your body is at rest. So this type of exercise is good for weight reduction as well.

Some examples of strength training include using weight machines or free weights; using resistance bands; and lifting light hand weights or bottles of water. Activities like house cleaning and gardening may also help build muscle. Above all, do not surrender yourself to diabetes, even if you are at risk. Staying healthy may start with an ounce of prevention.


For more information and an online quiz to assess your risk, go to the website doihaveprediabetes.org.