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Healthy habits that can reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes

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Have you been diagnosed with prediabetes? These lifestyle changes can lower your blood sugar levels.

Kate Rockwood

By Kate Rockwood

Everyone has heard of diabetes, but the term “prediabetes” may not be as familiar. With prediabetes, blood sugar levels are slightly elevated. It simply means that you’re at a higher risk of developing diabetes. It’s important to be aware of this condition because prediabetes affects 96 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And most people don’t know they have it.

That might sound alarming. But there’s good news: If you’re diagnosed with prediabetes, making simple lifestyle changes can return your blood sugar levels to normal. That may prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Here’s what you need to know about prediabetes and how you can cut your risk of getting the full-blown disease.

What is blood sugar?

Blood sugar is your body’s main energy source. You get it from the food you eat. A hormone called insulin helps move blood sugar from your bloodstream to your body’s cells. With Type 2 diabetes, your body can’t use insulin as well, so blood sugar stays in your bloodstream. This can cause damage to your heart and other organs.

Prediabetes is diagnosed through a blood test called A1C. This gives doctors a sense of how your blood sugar has fared in recent months. A reading between 5.7% and 6.4% is considered prediabetes. (A reading of 6.5% and above is in the diabetic range.)

Prediabetes has no symptoms, so the only way to know if you have it is to test for it. The American Diabetes Association recommends that everyone over age 45 be screened for prediabetes. If you’re overweight and have other risk factors, your doctor may screen you earlier.

If your test shows that you’re prediabetic, your doctor will recommend lifestyle changes. In some cases, he or she will also prescribe medication to bring down your blood sugar levels.

Revamp your diet

One of the best ways to address prediabetes is to rethink the way you eat, says Ksenia Blinnikova, MD. She’s a family and community medicine specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

First, cut back on simple carbohydrates, which can raise blood sugar quickly. These include:

  • Soda and other sugary drinks
  • Sweets such as cookies, candy and baked goods
  • White bread, white rice and white pasta
  • Chips, pretzels and crackers
  • Starchy vegetables (such as potatoes)

Consider how much of these foods you eat and drink, and set goals for gradually cutting back. You don’t have to eliminate simple carbs entirely. But balance them with fiber, protein and healthy fats. This can keep your blood sugar from spiking.

Next, focus on building healthy meals by following the plate method.

  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, leafy greens, peppers, carrots, summer squash or green beans)
  • Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean protein (such as poultry, eggs, fish, lean beef or pork, legumes or tofu)
  • Fill one-quarter of your plate with high-fiber carbs (whole grains, beans, fruit or starchy veggies)

These changes can have a bigger impact than you might expect, says Toby Smithson, RD. She’s a certified diabetes care and education specialist and the founder of “Studies have shown that following a plant-based eating plan may lower diabetes risk by 30%,” says Smithson. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are high in fiber and essential nutrients and low in calories.

Manage your weight

Losing weight can help lower your blood sugar levels. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. Losing just 5% to 7% of your body weight makes a difference, according to research from the CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program.

Why is extra weight bad for blood sugar levels? “The more fatty tissue you have, especially around your stomach, the more resistant your cells become to insulin,” says Smithson. That makes it harder for your body to bring down your blood sugar.

The Optum Store carries a variety of health tracking devices that help you meet your goals, including scales and activity trackers.

Get moving

Building a regular fitness regimen into your life is key to staving off diabetes, says Dr. Blinnikova. “Exercise is an important part of managing elevated blood sugar levels.” Exercise lowers blood sugar and reduces insulin resistance.

U.S. physical activity guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. (That’s about half an hour a day on most days.) And lots of activities count as exercise, including:

  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Dancing
  • Gardening and yardwork
  • Biking
  • Active yoga
  • Swimming

“Choose what you enjoy doing,” says Dr. Blinnikova. “Just keep moving. Every minute counts.”

And you don’t have to do your daily exercise all at once. You can spread it out over the day. Light exercise, such as a short walk, after meals is especially helpful for lowering blood sugar after you eat. Try to work in 2 sessions of strength training a week, too. You can use weight machines at a gym or light hand weights at home.

If you haven’t exercised much — or at all — that’s okay. Don’t jump straight into an intense workout because that can put you at risk for injury, says Dr. Blinnikova. Start with 5 to 10 minutes a day. Slowly increase your activity as you get used to it.

Seek support

You can get help if changing your diet and exercise habits seems difficult to do on your own. The CDC Diabetes Prevention Program offers Lifestyle Change Programs all over the country. You can do them in person, online or as a combination.

This year-long program provides you with a lifestyle coach, support group and regular meetings. They’ll provide education and motivation that can help you make lifelong changes. And it’s backed by research — studies show that the program can cut your risk of developing diabetes by more than half (even more if you’re over 60).

The program is often covered by insurance, so it may be available at no cost to you. Check with your doctor to see if there’s a program near you.

Ask your doctor if medication might help

Some people with prediabetes need to take medication. Metformin is a common medication doctors prescribe. It helps insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. “Drug therapy may be helpful in preventing Type 2 diabetes in high-risk patients,” says Dr. Blinnikova.

Knowing your risk means you have the power to prevent diabetes. “The diagnosis of prediabetes can be thought of as a moving train. Making changes now can stop the train in its tracks,” says Smithson. The important thing is to work toward changes gradually so that they become lifelong habits.

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Additional sources
Prediabetes statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). “Prediabetes — Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes”
Lifestyle recommendations: American Diabetes Association (n.d). “Prediabetes.”
National Diabetes Prevention Program: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d). “Working Together to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes.”