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10 steps to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is on the rise in line with obesity and sedentary lifestyles. ​​​​​​​Find out how you can reduce your risk of developing this lifelong disease.

More than 4.9 million people in the UK have diabetes, and, if we don't take action, Diabetes UK predicts that 5.5 million people will have diabetes in the UK by 2030 [1]. 

So where are we going wrong? In this blog, we discuss everything you need to know about diabetes and ten ways to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  

What is diabetes?  

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high [2].  

Blood sugar (or glucose) is the main sugar found in your blood. It’s your body’s main source of energy and comes from the food you eat. Your blood sugar levels are controlled by insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas), when you digest food, the insulin moves the glucose from the blood and into cells to use for energy.  

With diabetes, your body is not able to produce enough insulin (or the insulin already present in your body doesn’t work correctly), leaving higher levels of glucose in the body and causing high blood sugar levels.  

There are four types of diabetes: 

  1. Type 1 diabetes – where the immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin, leaving higher levels of glucose in the body. 
  2. Type 2 diabetes – the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or may react adversely to the insulin that’s already been created. 
  3. Pre-diabetes – occurs when blood sugar is higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. You can read more about pre-diabetes and how to prevent it in our blog.  
  4. Gestational diabetes – this happens during pregnancy as the placenta produces insulin-blocking hormones that can cause high blood sugars. 

In the UK, 90% of diabetes cases are type 2 [2]. If left uncontrolled, type 2 diabetes can cause serious health issues such as blindness, heart disease, and kidney failure. 

What are the symptoms of diabetes? 

It's important to identify type 2 diabetes early so that you can receive the correct treatment and implement lifestyle changes to help control any symptoms 

Symptoms of diabetes include: 

  • Excessive thirst 
  • Frequent urination (particularly at night) 
  • Tiredness 
  • Weight loss 
  • Genital itching 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Cuts/injuries taking longer to heal 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or are concerned about your diabetes status, our Diabetes (HbA1c) Blood Test can help you investigate how well your body has been managing sugar levels over the last few months.  

In the meantime, if you are experiencing symptoms and are concerned about your risk, it may be wise to try some lifestyle changes. Research shows that a mix of lifestyle interventions such as diet and exercise can effectively reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by about 50% [1]. 

How to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes 

In its early stages, type 2 diabetes can be reversed through lifestyle changes. It is strongly associated with obesity, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Have a look at our 10 ways to prevent type 2 diabetes. 

1.  Maintain a healthy BMI

Most people that develop type 2 diabetes are overweight, particularly in the midsection where the fat covers the abdominal organs (known as visceral fat). 
Excess body weight can cause inflammation and insulin resistance and may lead to the development of diabetes. 

Maintaining a healthy BMI can help reduce your risk and better your general health and well-being at the same time.  

Tips for maintaining a healthy BMI include: 

  • Adopting a healthy and balanced diet 
  • Exercising regularly  
  • Ensuring a calorie deficit (eating less energy than you are using) 

2. Reduce unsaturated fats and refined sugars 

A common misconception is that diabetes is only caused by a high intake of refined sugar. But dig a little deeper, and you will learn that a high intake of unhealthy fats from ultra-processed foods can also play a major part. Be mindful of this when selecting low sugar or sugar-free versions of foods in the supermarket, as unsaturated fats may have been added to compensate. 

If you’re a foodie and looking for some diabetes-friendly meals and snacks, Diabetes UK has an excellent guide to help inspire you.  

That said, a high intake of sugary drinks can contribute to developing type 2 diabetes. Swapping these for water will have the reverse effect by decreasing insulin resistance and lowering blood sugar levels [3] . 

The same can be said for alcohol consumption. Alcoholic drinks tend to contain a shocking number of calories and sugar, increase your appetite, and reduce your inhibitions to eat more high sugar/high-fat foods.  

Long-term drinking can lead to weight gain and excessive amounts can be damaging to your pancreas, meaning it can no longer produce insulin correctly. Having the occasional drink is unlikely to cause significant harm but try to avoid any excessive consumption, keeping your intake less than 14 units per week. You can visit the Alcohol Change UK website or download their app to track the amount you drink. 

3. Eat more plants 

Certain dietary patterns can increase your risk of developing diabetes. 

Foods that increase your risk of diabetes include [4]: 

  • Meat 
  • Dairy products 
  • Unsaturated fats  

Many studies show a plant-based diet with a focus on vegetables and whole grains has helped in reducing the risk of diabetes, including Medichecks’ study (2019) of 21,000 UK residents which showed that vegans have better blood glucose control markers compared to non-vegans. 

You can read more about vegan and plant-based diets in our guide.  

4. Optimise your vitamin D levels

Healthy levels of vitamin D can help the function of insulin-producing cells, and, in turn, help normalise blood sugar levels.  

Vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency are common in the UK due to the body not being able to make enough through sunlight in winter. Therefore, the Department of Health and Social Care recommends that adults and children over the age of four take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D throughout the year [5].  

You can check your vitamin D levels with our Vitamin D (25 OH) Blood Test and find more information in our vitamin D guide

5. Avoid a sedentary lifestyle

A sedentary lifestyle means you are sitting for most of your day and partake in little to no physical activity. Multiple studies have found that people with sedentary behaviours increase their risk of developing diabetes by 91% [6]. 

Leading a sedentary lifestyle can’t always be helped due to the nature of workplaces. However, making small changes, such as getting up to walk around every hour or going on a short walk in the evening, can help to improve your health and reduce your risk. 

6. Exercise regularly

Exercise increases your cell’s insulin sensitivity; therefore, less insulin is needed to control your blood sugar levels.  

Physical activity needs to be performed consistently to have a notable impact, so it’s best to do something you enjoy and can commit to long-term. 

Most types of exercise are shown to reduce insulin resistance, such as aerobic exercise, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training. If the gym isn’t for you, we put together five ways to move more without going to the gym

7. Quit smoking

Smoking can cause many serious health conditions, including: 

  • Heart disease 
  • Emphysema 
  • Cancer 

But there is also research that links smoking to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes [7]

To help reduce your risk of the above, it is recommended to quit smoking. However, we do understand it’s not always that easy. The NHS offers multiple support groups and self-help articles to encourage you in your journey. 

8. Adopt a low GI (glycemic index) diet 

A healthy, balanced diet can help you optimise your health, but certain plans are designed to combat pre-diabetes.  

Specifically, a low GI (glycaemic index) diet is shown to have numerous benefits.  

Low GI diets focus on foods that are more slowly converted into energy by the body. They can help to make blood glucose levels more stable and, therefore, beneficial in preventing and controlling diabetes. 

The glycemic index ranks food depending on the rate at which the body breaks it down to glucose. High GI foods are quickly broken down into glucose and low GI goods are broken down slower. 

High GI foods include: 

  • White bread 
  • Sweetened drinks 
  • Biscuits 
  • Potatoes 
  • Oranges 

Low GI foods include: 

  • Green vegetables 
  • Raw carrots 
  • Kidney beans 
  • Chickpeas 
  • Lentils 
  • Bran breakfast cereals 

Some research has also shown that minimising your carbohydrates and increasing your fibre intake can help regulate blood sugar levels [6]. Fibre can be found in fruit and vegetables, and wholegrain wheat. 

If you’re interested in researching other specific diet plans, these have been known to decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes: 

9. Monitor your portions

Try to avoid large portions of food, particularly if you have a higher-than-average BMI. Overeating can lead to higher blood sugar levels and increase your risk of diabetes. Therefore, it is recommended that you monitor your portion sizes. 

Tips to help monitor portions include: 

  • Have a glass of water before you eat so you feel more full 
  • Make sure there is at least 1/3 of vegetables on your plate before you serve anything else 
  • Use a smaller plate so that you reduce the chance of overfilling your plate 

10. Drink non-sweetened hot drinks 

Drinking water should be your go-to to keep hydrated, but this doesn’t mean you can only drink water for the rest of your life.  

Unsweetened tea, coffee, or herbal drinks can also help in reducing your risk of diabetes. These drinks contain antioxidants that help to reduce your blood sugar levels. Green tea is particularly beneficial as it has a unique antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate that isn’t found in most other drinks [8]. 

Diabetes help and support  

Diabetes can be a worrying condition but taking control and making healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  

Remember, you are not alone and if you need extra support, your GP and Diabetes UK  can provide information for local support groups.  

Medichecks is here to help too. You can test your HbA1c levels every three months with our Diabetes (HbA1c) Blood Test. You’ll find your results and invaluable insights on your dashboard so that you can track your improvements over time and celebrate when you make positive changes. 


References 

  1. UK, D., 2022. Diabetes statistics. [online] Diabetes UK. Available at: <https://www.diabetes.org.uk/professionals/position-statements-reports/statistics> [Accessed 6 June 2022].
  2. nhs.uk. 2022. Diabetes. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetes/> [Accessed 6 June 2022].
  3. Healthline. 2022. How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes: 11 Methods. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/prevent-diabetes> [Accessed 6 June 2022]..
  4. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 2022. Does Sugar Cause Diabetes?. [online] Available at: <https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/does-sugar-cause-diabetes> [Accessed 6 June 2022].
  5. nhs.uk. 2022. Vitamin D. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/> [Accessed 6 June 2022].
  6. Dempsey, P., Owen, N., Yates, T., Kingwell, B. and Dunstan, D., 2016. Sitting Less and Moving More: Improved Glycaemic Control for Type 2 Diabetes Prevention and Management. Current Diabetes Reports, 16(11).
  7. Willi, C., Bodenmann, P., Ghali, W., Faris, P. and Cornuz, J., 2007. Active Smoking and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes. JAMA, 298(22), p.2654.
  8. Kim, H. and Kim, J., 2013. The Effects of Green Tea on Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes &amp; Metabolism Journal, 37(3), p.173.