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How to reduce your risk of diabetes by up to 47%, according to new study

Not only can people with prediabetes, halve their diabetes risk, but those with Type 2 diabetes may be able to reverse it through lifestyle changes.
A diet rich in veggies and nutrient-dense, complex carbohydrates like quinoa and broccoli can help regulate blood sugar.sveta_zarzamora / Getty Images/iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Researchers have good news for people with prediabetes. Making minor adjustments to your lifestyle, such as ramping up your physical activity and losing about 4 to 6 pounds, can cut your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes nearly in half — by 40 to 47%, according to a new study published in the November 2020 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

And if you've already been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, you may be able to reverse the condition by making some more dramatic lifestyle changes.

As it stands, more than 40% of Americans are obese — and that number is the highest it's ever been. And here are some other jaw-dropping statistics: More than 88 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes and over 34 million have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (approximately 90 to 95% of them have Type 2 diabetes). About 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.

If you fall into any of these categories, there are simple steps you can take to make lasting changes. For example, you only need to lose 5% of your body weight to seriously start reducing your risk for Type 2 diabetes. And you only need to lose 1 gram of fat from your pancreas (where your insulin lives) to reverse the symptoms of diabetes, according to one small study.

The connection between a small amount of weight loss with a large health benefit is not new. A 2012 study found reducing body mass index (BMI) by just five units could help reverse diabetes, regardless of your initial BMI. Diabetes can be a confusing topic — here are a few things you should know.

There are two very different types of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes involves the absence of insulin, a critical hormone needed to help control blood sugar levels. It has often been referred to as juvenile diabetes or insulin dependent diabetes. Type 1 diabetes represents a very small percentage of total diabetes cases — just 5 to 10% — and has nothing to do with being overweight or obese.

The other form is called Type 2 diabetes (often referred to as adult onset or noninsulin dependent). Type 2 diabetes is highly correlated to weight. Individuals with Type 2 diabetes produce insulin, but the hormone is not sensitive enough to the rise and fall of blood sugar levels. This form of the disease may start as insulin resistance or prediabetes. Both types of diabetes are serious and can lead to several adverse health outcomes, like nerve damage, impaired kidney function, problems with eye health, heart disease and stroke.

Why does weight gain lead to diabetes?

Carrying too much weight can lead to diabetes because obesity and insulin resistance go hand-in-hand. Although scientists are still searching for why the interaction occurs, it appears it has to do with excess fat that is being stored and the amount of fatty acids, glycerol, hormones, cytokines and pro-inflammatory markers that circulate in an obese state, according to a 2014 study.

Additionally, an increase in Type 2 diabetes is seen more in people who are apple-shaped (where fat is carried in the midsection, closer to your vital organs, and is more metabolically active) than in pear shapes (where fat is carried in the buttocks or thighs). When too much fat overloads the body, the response to carbohydrate consumption can become dulled. You become less sensitive to how much insulin you need to release in response to the carbohydrate you’ve just consumed, and in response, blood sugar increases.

On the flip side, any activity that helps reduce the fatty acid buildup associated with obesity can help to reduce the mechanisms that created diabetes to begin with.

Certain diets can help reverse diabetes.

A study from the British Journal of Medicine (BMJ) published in July 2020 suggested that eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruit may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. A 2017 animal study from Yale demonstrated a low-calorie diet could help to rapidly decrease diabetes. And yet another study, published in the journal Nutrition, found a diet low in carbohydrates may also help to reverse diabetes. The mechanism behind these studies makes sense. Fewer calories, as well as fewer carbohydrates, equates to less reliance on insulin and blood sugar, which in turn, can help to reverse diabetes. In fact, low carbohydrate diets, as well as fasting approaches, have consistently been found to help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, and reduce the risk of several diseases, including diabetes.

What is the secret to making a lasting change?

A study published in the journal Obesity in October 2017 showed that your food choices rule your ability to lose weight, but your exercise habits rule your ability to keep that weight off. Therefore, in order to reverse obesity (and its related diseases) and keep the weight off, you’ll have to get moving as well. A study published in the May 2018 issue of Diabetologia found high intensity training helped improve beta cell (the cells that store and release insulin) function in people with Type 2 diabetes.

While you focus on finding time for fitness, you'll also want to make sure you're finding a sensible way to consume fewer carbohydrates while eating more green leafy vegetables, healthy fats and lean sources of proteins. You can do this by first choosing only nutrient-dense, complex carbohydrates, found in beans, whole grains and starchy vegetables. Omit carbohydrates from sweets, sugary drinks and white, refined grains.

Next, you can increase healthy fats and proteins in your diet by consuming more olive oil, avocados and omega-3 rich sources like wild salmon, nuts and seeds.

The final step may be to share your intention with others and use your phone to track success. One study showed taking a selfie and sharing your goals with online communities may help you stick to your weight-loss goals.

Weight loss can seem overwhelming, and perhaps, even unattainable. However, focusing on small weight-loss goals can have a very big impact on your risk of diabetes. If you’re 200 pounds, losing just 10 pounds (5%) may start the process of stopping diabetes in its tracks. Start today.