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November 13, 2015

4 Ways to Reduce Your Diabetes Risk

by Amanda MacMillan

diabetes risk

Chances are, you know someone with diabetes. Most likely, you know several people -- maybe family members or close friends. That's a pretty safe assumption, considering that about 29 million people in the United States are estimated to have the disease, or roughly 9 percent of the population.

Here’s why that’s so unfortunate: Diabetes is extremely dangerous. It can lead to heart disease, stroke, amputations, blindness, and kidney disease, to name a few complications, and it's the seventh leading cause of death among U.S. adults.

But the good news is that type 2 diabetes (the type that usually affects adults) is almost always preventable. In fact, one large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women who followed healthy lifestyle habits were able to reduce their risk of diabetes by a whopping 90 percent. Research in men has found similar results, as well.

If you're concerned about your own risk for diabetes, there's plenty you can do to protect yourself. Start with the steps below, says Maria Pena, MD, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, then talk with your doctor about other ways you can stay safe.

If you're overweight, lose weight.
Maintaining a healthy body weight (defined as having a body mass index of 25 or less) is ideal -- but you don't have to take an all-or-nothing approach. “You don't have to lose a ton of weight to make a real difference,” says Pena. “If people are overweight or obese, just losing just 5 to 10 percent of their body weight can be enough to reverse or prevent diabetes.”

The most effective way to lose weight is to cut excess calories from your diet, she says -- especially those in the form of sugary beverages, sweets, high-fat foods and simple carbohydrates, like white bread.

Getting more physical activity -- like wearing a fitness tracker and aiming to walk 10,000 steps a day -- will also help you lose weight and stay healthy. In fact, regular exercise and a healthy diet can reduce your risk of diabetes even if you're not overweight.

If you smoke, stop.
Everyone knows that cigarette smoking can cause cancer and heart disease. But you may not realize that smokers are also 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop diabetes. And for people who already have diabetes, smoking makes the disease harder to control and increases their chances of developing life-threatening complications.

It makes sense, then, that quitting smoking will lower your diabetes risk. But there's a catch: “Often, when people quit smoking they gain weight, which can also contribute to diabetes,” says Pena. Still, the pros of quitting outweigh the cons, she says, and weight gain isn't a definite. “Talk to your doctor when you're ready to take that step, and ask about strategies to control your weight while you make the transition.”

If you drink, keep it moderate.
In addition to maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet, getting daily exercise, and not smoking, having about three alcoholic drinks a week can help protect against diabetes. (Following these five steps helped women in the NEJM study reduce their risk by 90 percent.)

The key is to limit yourself to moderate amounts. Having more than one drink a day for women, or two drinks a day for men, may raise your risk for diabetes, as well as other health problems. And if you don't drink at all, experts agree that there's no need to start.

If you have risk factors, know your numbers.
People with a family history of diabetes or existing risk factors -- like being overweight, having high blood pressure or cholesterol, or having had gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) -- should ask their doctor about a screening called a hemoglobin A1C test, says Pena.

This test will give you an average of your blood glucose levels over the past few months, and a good indication of how high your risk really is, she adds. “If your A1C shows that you're prediabetic and are headed toward full-blown diabetes, you and your doctor can come up with a plan to stop or reverse that process.”