Diabetes is 90 Percent Preventable, Study Says

You can “substantially” lower your risk of type 2 diabetes with a few moderate lifestyle changes.

May 11, 2009

Fill up on veggies to keep diabetes off your plate.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Nine out of 10 cases of diabetes could be prevented by following modestly healthier lifestyles, according to a recent study published in the journal the Archives of Internal Medicine. “We know how to prevent nearly all cases of type 2 diabetes,” says study researcher Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers found that a combination of five lifestyle factors accounted for 9 out of 10 new cases of type 2 diabetes in people ages 65 and older. Those factors are: physical activity, diet, smoking habits, alcohol use, and body fat, which was calculated through body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference readings. They followed 4,883 men and women over a 10-year period as part of the Cardiovascular Health Study. Participants answered questionnaires regarding their health habits, and their BMI and waist size were measured during a physical exam. Based on their responses, they were place in a low- or high-risk group. During the 10-year study, 300 people were diagnosed with diabetes. Researchers found, though, that a person’s chance of developing diabetes was 35 percent lower for each lifestyle factor that was within healthy parameters.

WHAT IT MEANS: Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body fails to properly respond to and produce insulin, which results in a buildup of sugar in the blood and other problems. It affects nearly 24 million Americans, or about 8 percent of the entire population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Older people are most at risk. While there other, unchangeable risk factors—like genetics—Dr. Mozaffarian says the study’s results show that people can lower their chances of developing diabetes even if they are unable to follow a perfect ideal of healthy behavior. He says very modest differences in lifestyle can have a huge impact on risk, noting that improving any two, three, or four of the five factors, in any combination, will substantially lower one’s risk.

Here’s how to slash your risk of developing type 2 diabetes:

• Get moving. The Diabetes Prevention Program, which was implemented in the United States and other countries, shows that by exercising 150 minutes a week and reducing body weight by 5 to 7 percent through a diet low in fat and reduced in calories, the risk of progressing from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes can be reduced by 58 percent.

• Know your risk. Calculate your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by taking American Diabetes Association's Risk Test. “Knowing your risk is one of the first steps for preventing type 2 diabetes,” says Sue McLaughlin, BS, RD, president of health care and education at the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “Talk with a diabetes educator or other health-care professional who is knowledgeable about diabetes to learn what will work for you. There is no one plan that works for everyone.”

• Get creative with exercise, food, and drink. People can also implement other ways to expend calories. Here’s what McLaughlin suggests: Walking or riding a bike to the neighborhood grocery store or post office, rather than driving; marching in place and lifting hand weights, or doing chair exercises while watching TV; going out dancing instead of to a movie; walking on the track surrounding a baseball field while your child plays baseball; eating from smaller plates (it really does help you eat less); eating a salad at the beginning of a meal; filling half your dinner plate with low-calorie vegetables, such as broccoli or cauliflower, before eating the remainder of the meal; making a meal last at least 20 minutes, to promote satiety; switching from regular soda, Kool-Aid, or calorie-containing sports drinks to calorie-free options, or better yet…water!

• Kick unhealthy habits. Smoking and excessive drinking raise your risk of not only type 2 diabetes, but also all sorts of other health problems, such as heart disease and cancer.