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6 ways to reduce your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes

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Today is World Diabetes Day so I thought I’d take this opportunity to correct one of the biggest misconceptions about Type 2 diabetes that I hear all the time in my work as a dietitian.

But first, a few facts:

  • If diabetes was a country it would be the 3rd most populated country in the world behind China and India. With 371 million people living on it, ‘Diabetes Land’ would have more residents than the USA!
  • By 2030, it is expected that half a billion people will be living with diabetes.
  • In Australia today 1.1 million people live with diagnosed diabetes and 280 new cases are diagnosed every day.
  • As symptoms can appear gradually, up to half the people who have Type 2 diabetes don’t know that they have it – which is a pretty scary thought!
  • 60-80% of Type 2 diabetes cases can be prevented through following a healthy lifestyle.

There is no doubt that diabetes is a huge issue all around the world as well as here in Australia. Most people know someone who has Type 2 diabetes and if you have a blood relative with it that  increases your own risk of developing the condition down the track. But even if diabetes doesn’t run in your family, that doesn’t mean you are off the hook – 1 in 4 Australian adults over the age of 25 either has diabetes or has markers of impaired glucose tolerance (an indicator of prediabetes). So this is an issue that everyone should be paying attention to.

Diabetes is a chronic condition, once you have it you have it. There is no cure, only ways to manage it.

“I won’t get diabetes because I don’t eat a lot of sugary foods.”

Unlike Type 1 diabetes, which is an auto-immune condition, Type 2 diabetes is usually caused by lifestyle factors such as physical inactivity and being above a healthy weight. It is a common myth that diabetes is caused by eating sugary foods. Although diabetes itself means that the body finds it hard to process carbohydrates (including sugars), the condition is caused more by excess fat in the body making it difficult for the glucose to get from the bloodstream and into the cells where it is needed for energy. Although too much sugar in the diet will contribute to weight gain over time, so will too much fat or too much food in general, and so sugary foods can not be blamed in isolation.

If it isn’t sugary foods that cause diabetes, cutting out these foods alone isn’t going to help reduce your risk of getting it, so what will? There are many risk factors for getting Type 2 diabetes, some we can change and some we can’t. Things like family history, gender and age have an effect on your risk level, but these aren’t things we can change, so we won’t focus on them here.

The things below are all things that you have control over. Things that you can change to help reduce your risk. There are 6 things listed here that you can work on, but this doesn’t mean that you need to tackle everything all at once. In fact, I strongly suggest choosing one thing to work on at first and once you have achieved that you can move on to something else with confidence. Very few of us have the time and effort required to focus on more than one or two lifestyle changes at once. Most of us have jobs to go to, housework that needs to get done and a social life to keep up. There are many things vying for our attention. Don’t set yourself up for failure, be realistic and you will achieve more over time. If you go away from this article with just one thing that you will actively work on to change, then I will be happy!

6 ways to reduce your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes:

  1. Get screenedThis one may seem a little backwards, but stay with me. Many people have Type 2 diabetes for years before it is diagnosed. Diabetes causes damage when it isn’t treated and can affect pretty much every organ in the body from the eyes right down to the feet. If you have it, it is much better to know that you have it, because then it can be treated. Through the screening process you may find out that you have prediabetes which does put you at an increased risk of getting diabetes later. If you catch it at this stage though, the good news is that you can reverse prediabetes by making healthy lifestyle changes. Unfortunately many people don’t get screened and don’t find out until they get diabetes, which can’t be reversed. So ask your doctor for a fasting glucose test and see where you’re at. Knowledge is power.
  2. Treat your high blood pressure. Take high blood pressure as a warning sign. Having blood pressure above 140/90mmHg increases your risk of not only Type 2 diabetes, but also other health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle can have some effect here, but you may need medication. Nobody likes taking medications, but if you need them, take them. I’m pretty passionate about this as my dad passed away from a stroke at the age of 54 after having high blood pressure for many years. If you’re worried about taking a pill, think about the alternative. Treat the warning sign. 
  3. Treat your high cholesterol. Again, if you have high cholesterol, don’t ignore it. Address the issue before it lands you in even more trouble. For the general population a total cholesterol reading above 5.5mmol/L is something to take action over. Whether it’s with lifestyle measures or medications. Don’t ignore it, treat it.
  4. Quit smoking. I am not going to harp on about this one. I don’t think there is anyone out there who thinks that smoking is a good idea when it comes to health. You may be surprised that it does increase your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes. If you smoke, quit. If you need help to do so, speak to your doctor or call quitline (13QUIT).
  5. Reduce your waist circumference. Carrying weight around the middle of the body is the most dangerous place to carry it. This excess weight not only puts you at an increased risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, but also cardiovascular disease and some cancers as well. Ideally the best place to be is less than 94cm for men and less than 80cm for women. However, any reduction here will be beneficial even if you don’t make it down to these targets. Focus on progress rather than perfection and don’t do anything crazy. The best weight loss is slow and steady. Don’t get sucked in by gimmicks or fads – if they’re trying to sell you a weight loss product or telling you to cut out entire food groups, steer clear!
  6. Get active. Being physically active is obviously going to help with reducing your waist circumference if you need to do so, but it is also an independent risk factor for diabetes. So even if you are at a healthy weight activity is still important. Aim for at least 30 minutes on most days, or 45-60 minutes if you’re trying to lose weight. Find something you like doing and vary your activities to keep yourself interested.

Following a healthy lifestyle will not only reduce your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, but also heart disease and some cancers, so changes can be wide reaching in terms of benefits. Remember, take small steps and they will build up over time.

So what is the ONE thing that you are going to focus on to reduce your risk? Share them with us in the comments.

What do you think?