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If the old proverb “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true, then what better day than today to start to reduce your diabetes risk?
Unmanaged diabetes can lead to kidney failure or blindness. It increases your risk for heart disease, limb amputation, and other serious health conditions.
Read on for 16 ounce-size steps you can take to cut down your chances of developing diabetes.
There are four areas where efforts can pay off: prevention, diet, hydration, and supplemental supports.
1. Say “adios” to sugar and refined carbs
Learn to tell empty carbs from whole carbs. Sugars and simple starches (like those found in pizza crust) are easily broken down in your bloodstream to produce glucose, the energy for your cells.
This rise in blood glucose triggers the release of insulin, a hormone produced in your pancreas that moves glucose from your bloodstream to your cells.
When you have prediabetes or diabetes, your body becomes resistant to insulin, so sugar remains in your bloodstream. This causes your pancreas to release even more insulin, thus starting the unhealthy cycle that is diabetes.
Cutting down on sugar and refined carbs is one way to break the cycle. Blood sugar spikes lead to cravings, but low-glycemic foods (those with a GI of 55 or less) don’t cause spikes in blood sugar, stopping cravings before they start.
- multigrain, rye, and sourdoughbreads and crackers
- porridge made with rolled oats, bircher muesli, and all-bran cereals
- apples, strawberries, apricots, peaches, bananas, pears, and kiwi
- carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, tomatoes, and zucchini
- sweet potatoes (especially the nutrient-rich skin), corn, and yams
- legumes such as chickpeas, baked beans, and kidney beans
- whole-grain pastas like soba noodles, vermicelli noodles, and rice noodles
- nutrient-rich rice like basmati, Doongara, long-grain, and brown
- whole grains like quinoa, barley, pearl couscous, buckwheat, freekeh, and semolina
- healthy fats like milk, cheese, yogurt, soy milk, and almond milk
The following foods contain few or no carbohydrates and therefore don’t have a GI value:
- meat, including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and eggs
- fish and seafood, including salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and shrimp
- nuts such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, and macadamia nuts
- fats and oils, including olive oil, rice bran oil, butter, and margarine
- herbs and spices such as salt, pepper, garlic, basil, and dill
What about legit sugar?
There are two sources of dietary sugar:
- Naturally occurring sugars such as those found in milk or fruit
- Sugars added during processing (for example, the syrup in cans of fruit or the sugar that’s added to baked goods, sauces, and a dizzying variety of processed foods). Read labels carefully and be on the alert for sugar’s many sneaky names.
Sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol, have fewer calories than sugars but aren’t necessarily healthy.
Just because a package is labeled “sugar-free” does not mean it’s calorie- or carbohydrate-free. Check labels carefully for the calories and grams of total carbs.
2. Be portion-conscious
Eating too much at meals is linked to higher blood sugar and insulin levels in people with an increased risk of diabetes.
Fortunately, studies have shown that reducing portion size can prevent the progression of diabetes.
Here are some simple ways to reduce portion sizes:
- Use visual references. Comparing amounts of food to objects such as a tennis ball or deck of cards can help you eyeball healthy portions.
- Eat slowly and pay attention to when you begin to feel full. Pause occasionally throughout the meal.
- Take time to enjoy the smell, texture, and flavors!
- Think of foods that are high in sugar and carbs as condiments rather than the main attraction.
- Have a large glass of water before meals.
- Request a doggy bag for some of your meal at restaurants, where portions are out of your control.
- When dining with others, make the company and conversation the main event rather than the food.
3. Eat more fiber
Fiber is found in plant-based foods. Animal-based products don’t contain fiber. Adults need 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day.
Studies show that a diet rich in fiber can lower blood sugar and insulin levels in people with an increased risk of diabetes.
Dietary fiber also helps with digestive health and weight management. What’s not to love?
Good sources of dietary fiber include:
- beans and legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, white beans, and lentils
- fruits and vegetables, especially those with edible skin (like apples) and edible seeds (like berries) — wash them whenever possible, but don’t peel produce that has edible skin
- peanuts, walnuts, and almonds (but watch portion sizes because they’re calorie-dense)
- whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain cereals, specifically those with 3 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving
Increasing your intake of raw foods can help boost your fiber intake. Cooking methods that soften food also reduce its fiber content, so embrace the crunch of fruits and vegetables in their natural state.
4. Limit processed foods
Try the single-ingredient craze. Those prepackaged meals with 20 ingredients you can’t pronounce could be linked to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Why? One theory is that processed foods lack the protective properties of whole foods. Processing food and adding preservatives prolongs its shelf life but doesn’t ensure freshness or nutritional value.
Preservatives carry health risks that may not be revealed until years after they’ve been introduced. Manufacturers use fats and sugars to enhance the flavor lost during processing.
Try these swaps to include more whole foods in your diet:
- whole raw fruits rather than canned versions or juices
- plain yogurt with sliced fruit rather than fruit-flavored versions
- homemade soups rather than dried or canned soups
- mashed avocado with onion and tomatoes rather than packaged guacamole
- taco, poke, or noodle bowls where you choose the ingredients rather than prepackaged “make-at-home” versions
5. Eat whole grains
Somehow, the white, squishy Wonder Bread of 1921 still exists, but that doesn’t mean we should eat it. The whole-grain versions we use today for avocado toast are much more deserving of our appreciation.
Some ways to eat more whole grains throughout the day:
- Breakfast: Try steel-cut oatmeal or quinoa with a banana and almond milk, or whole-grain toast with avocado or nut butter. The variations are as endless as your imagination.
- Lunch: Whole-grain bread packs a nutrient-rich punch and helps you feel full. Whole-wheat pasta salads are packable and provide lunchtime variety (no sad desk lunches here!).
- Dinner: Go for brown rice instead of the white stuff as a side dish or a base for stir-fries.
6. Get on the keto train
If eating like a caveman appeals to you, you might reap the added benefit of preventing diabetes.
Following a high-protein, low-carb keto plan can improve insulin levels and reduce belly fat. It also gives you the added support of prepared eating plans, labeled products, and media sources.
7. Stick to water
The science is clear on the role of sugary drinks in the development of diabetes. They’re a leading dietary cause of diabetes, and they increase your risk for heart disease, obesity, and many other health conditions.
If you want a diabetes-free future, most of your liquid intake every day should be water.
Here are some tips:
- Slice fruit to flavor and freshen water. Lemon is common, but lime, orange, watermelon, berries, and even cucumber are great too. Try an infuser pitcher.
- If bubbles are your thing, use a carbonation machine to make sparkling water at home.
- Keep cold water available in a pitcher in the fridge.
- Make flavored ice cubes: Freeze chopped mint or basil or minced fruit in ice cube trays with water, and then use the ice to add flavor and visual interest to your glasses of H2O. You can also slice citrus fruits, freeze them on a cookie sheet, and then keep them in a plastic bag in the freezer for any time you need a cool drink with a bit of zing.
- Invest in a reusable water bottle.
- Remember: Sometimes what’s perceived as hunger is really thirst. This is especially true after exercise or at high altitudes. Before you reach for a snack, try a sip.
8. Drink coffee or tea
You’ll be happy to know that coffee and tea remain important tools in a diabetes-prevention toolkit. Research indicates that a daily coffee or tea habit can have many health benefits, including helping with management of diabetes.
Opt for plain coffee or tea with a splash of oat or almond milk instead of high-calorie lattes. If you prefer a fancier version, try these recipes:
9. Commit to regular sweat sessions
Commitment to regular workouts can prevent the progression of diabetes. Find something you enjoy doing that fits your schedule. The most important goal is to get moving and gradually increase the time you spend doing it. A few minutes a day can quickly become a habit.
Already a regular? Increase the positive effects on your health by upping the intensity or duration of your workout. Aim to vary your activities, mixing walking or jogging with weight training, swimming, or a weekly class. Your doctor can help you choose the type and intensity of workout that’s best for you.
Try a workout app that gives you easy access to motivation and support. Some popular and highly rated options include:
10. Maintain a healthy weight (or lose weight if your doctor recommends it)
There are several effective weight-control methods that have proven results. A visit to your doctor or a registered dietitian may be in order if you hope to lose a lot of weight or you have other nutritional needs.
Avoid fad diets, single-food plans (goodbye, “cottage cheese diet”), and tricks that promise results that are too good to be true (ahem, the “sleep diet”).
Instead, strive for a balance of healthy, unprocessed foods prepared without additional sweeteners and starches.
Consider these more lifestyle-appropriate eating plans:
- Mediterranean diet. An eating plan based on the lower risk of heart disease for people living in the Mediterranean.
- Low-carb diet. A diet that limits the intake of carbs, focusing instead on healthy fats. Examples include the keto diet and its older sibling, the Atkins diet.
- Paleo diet. A plan that relies on lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds (think of foods our cave-dwelling ancestors would have obtained by hunting and gathering). Dairy, legumes, and grains are limited or avoided.
- Pescatarian diet. Add fish and seafood to a vegetarian plan to boost your intake of omega-3s, zinc, calcium, and protein (all nutrients linked to diabetes prevention, according to a 2009 study).
While there’s no proven way to lose weight from only one part of your body, be aware that the buildup of fat around the abdominal organs, known as visceral fat, may pose significant health risks, including insulin resistance.
A smaller waistline may help you avoid some health issues, including diabetes.
11. Move more
Large-scale observational studies reveal a consistent link between sedentary lifestyles and diabetes.
As a famous former first lady said, just move. Find ways to add movement to activities that you usually do while sitting or standing still.
Some ideas to help you get moving:
- Clean the house to dance music (a mop or broom makes a great dance partner!).
- Walk while returning phone calls to family and friends.
- Strike a (yoga) pose while waiting on hold (speakerphone may be necessary).
- Set an alarm on your computer or phone to remind you to move every 90 minutes.
- Use a standing desk.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park farther from the entrances to stores or your office.
Changing your behavior may seem difficult at first, but after a little while it becomes second nature.
12. Stop smoking
Multiple studies link active and passive smoking to the development and progression of diabetes in men and women. There are many reasons to quit and multiple ways to get help.
Learn more through local smoking cessation groups, your doctor, or one of these helpful apps:
13. Get your vitamin D
Vitamin D is a blood sugar superhero. Multiple studies link low levels of vitamin D to an increased risk for both types of diabetes.
News flash: Unlike the sun, your smartphone doesn’t emit ultraviolet rays that make your body synthesize vitamin D. If you can’t get outdoors, try adding these vitamin D-rich foods to your diet:
- swordfish, salmon, or tuna
- enriched milk
- yogurt and cheese made with fortified milk
- beef liver
- egg yolks
- fortified cereals, especially whole-grain, low-sugar varieties
Chat with your doctor about adding a vitamin D supplement. They come in tablets and capsules. Research is ongoing about vitamin D’s role in both preventing and reducing the severity of diabetes.
14. Go au naturel
Some natural compounds are thought to reduce your diabetes risk:
Berberine is a plant extract taken orally that may help regulate how the body uses sugar.
Always talk to your doctor before taking a new supplement. Herbal supplements may have interactions with medications you’re currently taking.
15. Take care of your mental health
A 2005 study found that depression may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, although more research is needed to determine how closely the two are connected.
If you need guidance, support, a calming voice, or a gentle reminder, pull up a couch and use one of these mental health apps to ease both your mind and your diabetes risk.
- 7 Cups
Managing your mental health is as important as managing your food and fitness.
16. Stay connected
While diabetes currently has no cure, research is ongoing. Do your best to stay updated on treatment options.
Seek out healthy eating groups online or attend a cooking class. Try new restaurants with health-focused options. And be sure to see your doctor regularly to monitor any risk factors or other health concerns you have.