One out of three U.S. adults have prediabetes, which puts them on the road to type 2 diabetes. Nine out of ten of them don’t know it. Could you be one of them?
The good news: A healthy diet and moderate exercise can cut the risk of diabetes in half, even for people whose risk is already high.
Even more good news: you can cut your risk of diabetes quickly.
“If you make a change in your diet or lifestyle today, you’re taking your foot off the accelerator, and that happens almost overnight,” says Walter Willett, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“If you exercise today, your insulin resistance goes down within hours. And if you keep up daily exercise, within a day or two your risk of diabetes drops.”
Changing your diet might take longer to make a difference, but it’s a matter of weeks, not years. “Even if you’re right at the brink of diabetes, you can still rapidly reduce your risk,” says Willett.
Here are six changes you can make in your diet that lower your risk
These are based on long-term studies that track people’s habits and whether or not they develop diabetes.
Unhealthy carbs. “Cutting back on unhealthy carbohydrates—basically white flour and other refined starch, sugar, and potatoes—is helpful,” says Willett. In his recent study on 70,000 women, those who ate more starch and less fiber had a higher risk of diabetes.
Sugar drinks. “There’s about a 25 percent increase in the risk of diabetes for each 12 oz. serving of sugar-sweetened beverages per day,” notes Willett. And only about half of that increased risk is due to weight gain. “It’s also probably due to the high amount of unhealthy carbohydrate that is gulped down in a few minutes.”
Meat. “Both processed and unprocessed red meat are related to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, consistently and quite strongly in all of our studies,” says Willett. “If you want to keep diabetes risk low, replace red meat with some beans, nuts or other plant sources of protein, or some dairy, poultry, or fish.”
Yogurt. “There is always hype about the benefits of dairy,” says Willett. “We need more studies, but so far it looks like yogurt—but not overall dairy—seems to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.”
Coffee. In Willett’s studies, each daily cup of coffee was linked to a 4 to 8 percent lower risk of diabetes. “It’s probably due to the flavonoids and antioxidants in coffee,” he notes, “because it looks like decaffeinated coffee has a similar benefit.”
Magnesium. People who consume more magnesium-rich foods—like leafy greens, beans, nuts, and whole grains—have a lower risk of progressing from prediabetes to diabetes, although something else about those people could account for their lower risk.
With diet changes like these and regular, moderate exercise to keep everyone at low risk, “we could prevent about 90 percent
of type 2 diabetes in the United States,” Willett says.
Sources: Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 102: 1543, 2015; Diabetes Care 33: 2477, 2010; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 94: 1088, 2011; BMC Med. 12: 215, 2014; Circulation 133: 1645, 2016; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 97: 155, 2013; 16 Diabetes Care 37: 419, 2014.
Find this article about preventing diabetes interesting and useful? Nutrition Action Healthletter subscribers regularly get sound, timely information about how nutrients can affect their health. They also receive science-based advice about diet and diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, and other chronic diseases; delicious recipes; and detailed analyses of the healthy and unhealthy foods in supermarkets and restaurants. If you’re not already subscribing to the world’s most popular nutrition newsletter, click here to join hundreds of thousands of fellow health-minded consumers.