Healthy lifestyle can prevent diabetes (and even reverse it)

Monique Tello, MD, MPH

Contributing Editor

The rate of type 2 diabetes is increasing around the world. Type 2 diabetes is a major cause of vision loss and blindness, kidney failure requiring dialysis, heart attacks, strokes, amputations, infections and even early death. Over 80% of people with prediabetes (that is, high blood sugars with the high risk for developing full-blown diabetes) don’t know it. Heck, one in four people who have full-blown diabetes don’t know they have it! Research suggests that a healthy lifestyle can prevent diabetes from occurring in the first place and even reverse its progress.

Can a healthy diet and lifestyle prevent diabetes?

The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a large, long-term study, asked the question: we know an unhealthy diet and lifestyle can cause type 2 diabetes, but can adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle prevent it? This answer is yes: the vast majority of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes can be prevented through diet and lifestyle changes, and this has been proven by 20 years of medical research.

Researchers from the DPP took people at risk for type 2 diabetes and gave them a 24-week diet and lifestyle intervention, a medication (metformin), or placebo (a fake pill), to see if anything could lower their risk for developing diabetes. The very comprehensive diet and lifestyle intervention had the goal of changing participants’ daily habits, and included: 16 classes teaching basic nutrition and behavioral strategies for weight loss and physical activity; lifestyle coaches with frequent contact with participants; supervised physical activity sessions; and good clinical support for reinforcing an individualized plan.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the diet and lifestyle intervention was incredibly effective. After three years, the diet and lifestyle group had a 58% lower risk of developing diabetes than the placebo group. Participants aged 60 and older had an even better response, with a whopping 71% lower risk of developing diabetes. The diet and lifestyle effect lasted: even after 10 years, those folks had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes compared to placebo. Men, women, and all racial and ethnic groups had similar results (and almost half of participants represented racial and ethnic minorities). These results are not surprising to me or to other doctors, because we have all seen patients with prediabetes or diabetes get their sugars down with diet, exercise, and weight loss alone.

Meanwhile, the medication group had a 31% lower risk of diabetes after three years, and an 18% lower risk after 10 years, which is also significant. It’s perfectly all right to use medications along with diet and lifestyle changes, because each boosts the effect of the other. Studies looking at the combination of medication (metformin) with diet and lifestyle changes have shown an even stronger result.

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 sugary drinks, not only sodas but also juices. The best drinks are water, seltzer, and tea or coffee without sugar.
  • Swap out refined grains for whole grains. Whole grains are actually real grains that haven’t been stripped of nutrients in processing. Foods made from 100% whole grain (like whole wheat) are okay, but intact whole grains (like farro, quinoa, corn, oatmeal, and brown rice) are even better. Swapping out grains for starchy veggies (like potatoes) is also okay, as long as these veggies aren’t in the form of french fries!
  • Increase fiber intake. High-fiber foods include most vegetables and fruits. Legumes are also high in fiber and healthy plant protein. Legumes include lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas, edamame, and soy. 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 of all kinds, are especially healthy. All fruits and vegetables are associated with living a significantly longer and healthier life!
  • Eat less meat, and avoid processed red meat. Many studies have shown us that certain meats are incredibly risky for us. 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. Eating even a small portion of red meat daily (red meat includes beef, lamb, and pork), like a palm-sized piece of steak, is associated with a 20% increased risk of type 2 diabetes. This may be because of the iron in red meats, and the chemicals in processed meats. As a matter of fact, the less 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, 50%; those who eat only eggs and dairy, 60%; those who are vegan, 80%.
  • Eat healthier fats. Fat is not necessarily bad for you. What kind of fat you’re eating really does matter. Saturated fats, particularly from meats, are associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Plant oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, carry less risk. Omega-3 fats, like 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 as of April 2018, insurance companies are now covering these programs for people at risk. The CDC’s Diabetes Prevention Program, used in many clinics, is a free tool to help you learn and stick with the healthy diet, physical activity, and stress management techniques that reduce your risk of diabetes.

One helpful tool is the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source Healthy Eating Plate, which shows you what your daily food intake should look like: half fruits and vegetables, about a quarter whole grains, and a quarter healthy proteins (plant protein is ideal here), with some healthy fats and no-sugar-added beverages. The Harvard Health Blog also offers many articles with recipes and cooking videos to help you create a healthier, diabetes-free lifestyle.

Resources

New CDC report: More than 100 million Americans have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. CDC Newsroom, July 18, 2017.

Reduction in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or with metformin. New England Journal of Medicine, February 7, 2002.

10-year follow-up of diabetes incidence and weight loss in the Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study. The Lancet, November 14, 2009.

Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International Journal of Epidemiology, June 1, 2017.

Comments:

  1. Brandon Roch

    As someone who has a long line of diabetes history in the family, this article helps put things in perspective that there is SOME control we can exercise on our pre-disposition to diabetes through proper diet and exercise.

    I’ve heard that intermittent fasting is also a great tool to help keep diabetes in control as it increases insulin sensitivity. This occurs when food is introduced to the digestive tract after a long bout of not eating, insulin responds better and is able to more effectively shuttle nutrients to cells. But, hey I’m just a personal trainer, not a full blown nutritionist. Great read.

    Brandon Roch,

  2. Douglas Lee

    Fasting works similarly to bariatric surgery, but it’s much cheaper and easier. Read “The Diabetes Code, ” by Jason Fung.

  3. azure

    Unless, of course, you’ve been exposed to Agent Orange (or TCDD). Not only Vietnam War veterans but quite a few people in the US have been exposed, via aerial spraying of Agent Orange on national forest land in the 1980’s and it may have been sprayed into the 1990’s on some private timber lands.

    Exposure to Agent Orange has been causationally linked with development of diabetes.

    DMII isn’t always due to “life style” choices, despite what many health care providers, Dow Chemical, Bayer/Monsanto, et al, may tell you. Healthy food choices and exercise are always a good idea plus reviewing the Environmental Working Group’s list of fruit/veg that you should buy organic if you possibly can and which are ok/reasonably safe to buy “conventionally grown” (any and all pesticides/herbicides used–not just those okayed for organic growers to use). If you have space and time to grow some of your own veg/fruit (organically) you get the freshest of fresh (and possibly enough to freeze for the winter) veg/fruit while getting exercise as well.

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