The rate of type 2 diabetes is rapidly increasing around the world. Approximately 88 million American adults have prediabetes, which puts you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Scary, but true: One in five people who have diabetes don’t even know they have it. Research suggests that a healthy lifestyle can prevent diabetes in the first place and even reverse it once someone has it.
Can a healthy diet and lifestyle prevent diabetes?
“If we know an unhealthy diet and lifestyle can cause type 2 diabetes, can adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle prevent it?” asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). The answer turned out to be yes. Twenty years of medical research proves the majority of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes can be prevented through diet and lifestyle changes.
Researchers from the DPP gave people at risk for type 2 diabetes a 24-week diet and lifestyle intervention. This 16-class diet and lifestyle intervention was extremely effective. Even after three years, the diet and lifestyle group had a 58% lower risk of developing diabetes than the placebo group.
Participants older than 60 had an even better response, with 71% lower risk of developing diabetes. The diet and lifestyle effect lasted even after 10 years; they had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes compared to the placebo group. Men, women, and all racial and ethnic groups had similar results. These results are not out of the ordinary because it is common to see people with prediabetes or diabetes get their blood sugar and A1C down with diet, exercise, and weight loss alone.
Dietary recommendations to prevent diabetes (and even reverse it)
- Decrease intake of added sugars and processed foods, including refined grains like white flour and white rice. This especially includes soda, sugary drinks, alcohol, and even fruit juices. The best drinks are water, seltzer, and tea or coffee without sugar.
- Increase fiber intake. High-fiber foods include vegetables and fruits. Legumes are also high in fiber and healthy plant protein.
- Examples of legumes include: lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas, edamame. People who eat a lot of high-fiber foods tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less, and have a lower risk of diabetes.
- Increase fruits and vegetables intake. At least half of our food intake every day should be non-starchy fruits and vegetables, the more colorful the better. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, and high-fiber fruits, like berries, are especially healthy. All fruits and vegetables are associated with living a significantly longer and healthier life.
- Avoid processed meat. Many studies have shown that people who eat processed red meat are far more likely to develop diabetes: one serving a day (which is two slices of bacon, two slices of deli meat, or one hot dog) is associated with over a 50% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This may be because of the iron in red meat, and the chemicals in processed meat. As a matter of fact, the less processed meat you eat, the lower your risk of diabetes. People who don’t eat red meat at all but do eat chicken, eggs, dairy, and fish can significantly lower their risk of developing type 2 diabetes—by about 30%; those who eat only fish lower their risk by 50%.
- Eat healthy fats. Fat is not necessarily bad for you. What kind of fat you’re eating really does matter. Hydrogenated and saturated fats, particularly from processed oils and meats, are associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Plant oils, such as extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, carry less risk. Omega-3 fats, which are found in walnuts, flax seeds, and some fish, are actually quite good for you.
Diet and lifestyle changes that can help prevent diabetes
Diet and lifestyle changes are so effective for diabetes prevention that insurance companies are now covering the cost of programs that help people at risk. The Diabetes Prevention Program, used in many clinics, offers free tools and resources to help you learn and stick with the healthy diet, physical activity, and stress management techniques that reduce your risk of diabetes.