Diabetes is astonishingly common these days—so common it’s starting to feel like just another inevitable part of modern life. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 24 million Americans, roughly 8 percent of the population, suffer from diabetes; over 90 percent of those cases represent adult-onset or type 2 diabetes. A staggering 57 million more adults have prediabetic blood glucose levels, meaning that those who maintain their current lifestyle are very likely to develop full-blown diabetes down the road. Sound grim? Actually, it’s not—even if you have a predisposition. That’s because the disease is not, inevitable, say experts, even if your family history, race, or age suggest otherwise.
What is type 2 diabetes?
A condition in which the body becomes desensitized to the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels (insulin resistance), leading to elevated levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia). As a result, the receptors that reduce blood sugar (glucose) in response to insulin fail to function properly. Over time, high blood glucose levels tax the body, causing serious complications such as blindness, kidney damage, and cardiovascular disease
Slashing your risk—or your family’s risk—for the disease, however, requires you change your eating and exercise habits, says registered dietitian Joanne Gallivan, director of the National Diabetes Education Program in Washington, D.C. Consider this: “Just a 5 to 7 percent reduction in body weight in at-risk individuals can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by about half,” she says. First, remove sugary foods (foods high in any type of sugar, including table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or others), most fatty foods, and highly processed carbohydrates (such as white rice or white bread) from your diet. Eating these can contribute to weight gain, which can lead to insulin resistance, and this puts you at greater risk for type 2 diabetes. Research also shows that favoring the dietary suggestions made below and exercising regularly (see Exercise Away Diabetes Risk) can go a long way toward preventing—and sometimes even reversing—the disease.
Dress up oatmeal with berries and flaxseed. Whole-grain oats are a good source of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber, which can slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. “Plus, low–glycemic index whole grains like oats make you feel full for longer, so you’re less likely to overeat later,” says Melissa Herrmann Dierks, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Huntersville, North Carolina. But in general steer clear of the instant-flavored versions, which often contain lots of added refined sugar. Instead, top plain oatmeal with antioxidant-loaded berries for sweetness and fiber. Or try a little stevia or agave syrup, which are less likely to lead to blood-sugar crashes. Mix in ground flaxseed for even more fiber and an omega-3 boost.
Add cinnamon. According to two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 3–6 grams (about ½–1 teaspoon) of cinnamon may keep post-meal blood sugar levels in check, partly due to its ability to slow digestion. USDA researchers suggest that antioxidant compounds in cinnamon called proanthocyanidins (also found in cocoa, apples, grape seeds, and red wine) might have insulin-regulating properties. Get more of this warming spice by adding it to oatmeal, smoothies, roasted sweet potatoes, grilled fruit, and whole-grain muffins or pancakes.
Replace white rice with brown rice. “With more fiber and other helpful nutrients, whole grains have a lower glycemic index than processed foods and can help improve blood glucose control,” says Dierks. Harvard scientists have found that making a whole-grain choice twice daily lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 21 percent. The USDA recommends three or more servings of whole grains like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, 100-percent whole grain bread, oats, and brown rice per day. Spread out carbohydrate intake throughout the day, and have similar amounts at each meal to maintain steady blood glucose levels.
Go vegan or vegetarian. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that type 2 diabetics who followed a low-fat vegan diet for 18 months improved their blood fat levels and markers of blood glucose control more than those who consumed the typical diet recommended for those diagnosed with diabetes, which includes meat and dairy products. “A vegetarian diet low in saturated fat and high in plant fiber promotes weight loss and reduces the collection of fat in muscle cells, both of which improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose uptake,” says Neal Barnard, MD, the study lead author and Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Barnard encourages people to forgo meat and animal products for at least three weeks and going meat-free whenever possible, emphasizing protein- and fiber-packed beans and lentils.
Tea up. Greek researchers found that long-term moderate tea consumption (1–2 cups per day) lowered blood glucose and diabetes prevalence in men and women. True teas from the Camellia sinensis plant (but not herbal tisanes), including black, oolong, green, and white, contain antioxidant polyphenols and other components that may enhance insulin sensitivity. “Some studies also indicate green tea can boost metabolism, which may aid in the weight loss that so many people at-risk for or with diabetes clearly need,” adds Dierks. Plus, tea is a tasty alternative to sugar-sweetened drinks—or even juice—when plain-Jane water doesn’t appeal (see “Diabetes Prevention No-Nos” for more about drinks).
Eat a handful of nuts.According to a recent report in Diabetes Care, a diet rich in nuts and seeds (along with whole grains, fruit, leafy greens, and low-fat dairy) can slash diabetes risk by 15 percent. And a 2009 Harvard study showed that women with type 2 diabetes who consumed five 1-ounce servings of nuts per week significantly reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer of those with diabetes. “Nuts deliver plenty of antioxidants, monounsaturated fat, fiber, and vitamins, which may account for their heart- and diabetes-protective tendencies,” says Gallivan. “But the calorie count can add up quickly so enjoy no more than an ounce at a time,” she cautions. That’s about ¼ cup of almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, or pecans.
Try low-fat yogurt with hempseed and fresh fruit.This snack delivers diabetes-defense in three ways. Brimming with heart-healthy omega-3 fats, hempseeds are also one of nature’s richest sources of magnesium. Several clinical studies have demonstrated that magnesium—abundant in unprocessed seeds, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and green veggies—helps regulate blood sugar and slashes diabetes risk. Yogurt, along with brown rice, oysters, cashews, poultry, milk, and kidney beans, is a good source of zinc, which may also help curtail type 2 diabetes risk. Opt for plain yogurt, ground hempseed, and nutrient-dense fruit such as blueberries.
Favor dark green leafy veggies. In a recent U.K. study involving 22,000 participants, those consuming calorie-dense fare (i.e. French fries) were 60 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those whose daily diet focused on low-calorie foods such as leafy greens, fruits, and whole grains. In particular, kale and other dark green leafy vegetables such as Swiss chard, spinach, and collard greens are a stellar source of vitamin K, which improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control. For an extra dash of prevention, squeeze vitamin-C rich fresh lemon juice over your greens or toss mandarin oranges in your salad. British scientists recently concluded that people with the highest vitamin C levels are 62 ¬percent less likely to develop diabetes than those with the lowest intake.
Eat salmon and other fish. Salmon, rainbow trout, sardines, barramundi, mackerel, and arctic char are rich in omega-3s, which appear to stave off insulin resistance. As a perk, the livers of these environmentally sound swimmers are a rare food source of vitamin D. Accumulating evidence shows that low blood levels of the sunshine vitamin may play a role in type 2 diabetes risk. The American Heart Association recommends consuming fish at least twice per week.