With the obesity epidemic overtaking the U.S., diabetes now affects 20.8 million people. Of this number, 14.6 million have been diagnosed with diabetes, while 6.2 million are undiagnosed and unaware of their dangerous condition, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The link between excess weight and diabetes is unquestionable: Nine out of ten people newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, says the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Can Type 2 diabetes be prevented? “In most cases, the answer is an emphatic YES,” says Michael Murray, ND. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and nutritional supplements can greatly reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes.
What Is Diabetes?
Type 2 usually begins as insulin resistance, a disorder in which cells do not use insulin properly. Also known as “metabolic syndrome,” “prediabetes,” and “syndrome X,” insulin resistance is a group of related disorders including glucose intolerance, obesity, high cholesterol and/or high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.
Each of these puts you at increased risk of developing diabetes and other health problems. What’s more, many of the risk factors for diabetes—as well as the preventive strategies—are the same as those for heart disease. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and smart supplementation can help you ward off both of these diseases.
Diabetes and Heart Disease
If you have diabetes, your risk for heart-related complications increases. Heart disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths. Adults with diabetes have heart disease death rates about two to four times higher than adults without diabetes. About 65 percent of deaths among people with diabetes can be attributed to heart disease and stroke. The risk for stroke is two to four times higher among those with diabetes.
About 73 percent of adults with diabetes have high blood pressure (greater than or equal to 130/80 mm Hg), or they use prescription medications for hypertension. Unfortunately, nearly 70 percent of people with diabetes aren’t aware of their increased risk for heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure is a common—but often overlooked—symptom of diabetes.
In addition to treating diabetes, losing weight, exercising more, reducing salt intake, increasing potassium intake by eating more fruits and vegetables, getting plenty of calcium and magnesium, and lowering your cholesterol all help reduce high blood pressure.
One of the best—and simplest—ways to control the risk of diabetes and heart disease is a healthy diet. It’s no coincidence that the American Heart Association’s heart-healthy diet is similar to the American Diabetes Association’s diet recommendations.
Eat lots of vegetables and fruits in a rainbow of colors for maximum variety. Select leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and green beans. Limit starchy vegetables. Choose whole-grain foods, not processed grain products. Fiber in whole grains can help lower blood cholesterol and help you feel full, which aids with weight management. Fiber also slows digestion, helping to normalize blood sugar levels.
Consume fish (salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines) two to three times a week. Proteins rich in omega-3 fats help make the body more receptive to insulin, and they also protect against cardiovascular disease. Choose lean protein. In addition to fish, skinless poultry, lean red meat, eggs, and low-fat or nonfat cheese boost your protein intake and help counter insulin overproduction.
Select nonfat dairy (skim milk, nonfat yogurt) to reduce saturated fat intake and protect against insulin resistance. Drink water instead of soda, fruit punch, and other sugar-sweetened drinks. Soda is one of the greatest contributors to insulin resistance.
Cook with minimally processed oils instead of solid fats that can be high in saturated and trans fats. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been found helpful in addressing insulin resistance and achieving healthier cholesterol levels.
Cut back on high-calorie snacks and desserts (chips, cookies, cakes) to reduce intake of refined carbohydrates and processed foods. Highly refined ingredients such as white flour and white sugar are rapidly turned into glucose. Munch on a handful of raw nuts and seeds, rich in magnesium (which increases the body’s ability to utilize insulin) and fiber (beneficial for controlling blood sugar).
Watch your portion sizes. Eating too much of even healthful foods can lead to weight gain.
Use spices and herbs liberally. Garlic helps prevent the onset of insulin resistance by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels—all positives in the quest for a healthy heart. Sprinkle your morning cereal or toast with a little cinnamon to help control blood sugar as well as cholesterol.
Taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement is linked with a 30 percent reduction in diabetes risk for men and a 16 percent reduction for women, says Dr. Murray.
Also important for glucose control are B vitamins and the minerals magnesium, chromium, zinc, and manganese.
Major studies suggest that people with the highest levels of magnesium are at the lowest risk for developing diabetes. Since no one food is especially high in magnesium, you’ll need a balanced diet of minimally processed foods to get your recommended amount each day (for men: 420 mg if you’re 31 and older, 400 mg for ages 19 to 30; for women: 320 mg if you’re 31 and older, 310 mg for ages 19 to 30). The upper intake level for supplemental magnesium is 350 mg daily for adults.
“Exercise improves the action of insulin, moving glucose out of the bloodstream and into tissues where it can be used for energy,” says Andrew Weil, MD. A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that aerobic and resistance exercise reduce blood sugar “by an amount that should decrease the risk of diabetic complications.”
Take the stairs instead of the elevator, break up your workday with brief walks around your building, and do household chores—any activity counts. If you’re not used to exercising, start gradually. Keep a log of your daily activities, and work your way up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day most days of the week.