Diabetes 101

How Diet and Lifestyle Choices May Help Prevent the Disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 34.2 million Americans – approximately 1 in 10 – have diabetes. 88 million American adults – approximately 1 in 3 – have prediabetes. The numbers are staggering. However, many cases of diabetes can be prevented if the individuals make healthier choices earlier in life, and many cases of prediabetes can be reversed by making those same changes. Information is the key to better understanding how and why diabetes develops, and how to prevent its onset.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy.  Much of the food we eat is turned into glucose, a type of sugar, that the cells in our bodies use for energy. The hormone insulin, produced in the pancreas, helps deliver the glucose to our cells. When you have diabetes, your body either does not produce enough insulin or it does not use it efficiently. Either scenario causes too much sugar to remain in your bloodstream, which, over time, can cause a variety of health problems, such as heart and kidney disease, stroke, and vision and nerve problems.

Type 1 Diabetes:

Type 1 Diabetes is a disease where the pancreas stops producing insulin. Its onset has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle. “Type 1 diabetes is autoimmune,” says Ashley Martinez. “You often see it in individuals who are much younger, at times they have to take insulin because their bodies may not produce enough.”

Type 2 Diabetes:

Type 2 diabetes develops later in life as a result of lifestyle choices that lead to insulin resistance, which means your body does not process insulin properly. The pancreas makes extra insulin to compensate, but over time it is unable to keep up. “Basically, when we consume excessive calories, our pancreas overworks itself, trying to process all the food you consume,” Martinez explains. “The pancreas continues to produce insulin, but eventually, the pancreas can no longer do enough to capture all the sugar that is left in your blood. When those high insulin levels are not able to remove sugar from the blood, it can result in complications.” Type 2 diabetes is not reversable, but it can be managed.


Individuals are diagnosed as prediabetic when their hemoglobin a1c measurement – which shows the amount of sugar in the blood – is elevated over a period of several months. “Prediabetics are on the verge of type 2 diabetes, and if they continue with the same diet and lifestyle, they will develop type 2 diabetes,” says Martinez. “But, if habits are changed, prediabetics can reverse their condition.”

In fact, as many as 60% of cases of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes can be prevented by making lifestyle changes to improve diet, activity level and overall health. These same changes can also increase general health and lower the chances of developing other diseases.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Carrying excess weight is the leading risk factor for type 2 diabetes, as being overweight makes you seven times more likely to develop the disease, and makes you 20 to 40 times more likely to develop the disease than someone with a healthy weight. Conversely, losing weight can help if your weight is above the healthy-weight range. If you are overweight, losing 7-10% of your current weight can cut your chances of developing type 2 diabetes in half.


Inactivity is another leading cause of type 2 diabetes, and physical activity is key to its prevention and management. Working the muscles harder and more often improves insulin sensitivity. This means the muscles are better able to use insulin and absorb glucose, and when the muscles contract during activity, the cells can take up and use glucose for energy, whether insulin is present or not. Exercise also improves lung function, cardiac output and the health of blood vessels, which reduces the risk of a cardiovascular event in those with diabetes. And have no fear; you need not become a marathoner or bodybuilder to reap the benefits of exercise. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking each day reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 50%. Additionally, exercise can actually lower your blood sugar for up to 24 hours after your workout by making your body more sensitive to insulin, which, in the long-term, decreases stress on the pancreas and can lower average blood glucose levels.

Make Healthy Diet Decisions

“A diet that prevents diabetes is the same diet recommended for overall health,” says Martinez. “It is one that is in accordance with dietary guidelines and full of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, non-tropical oils such as olive, canola and avocado, and plenty of water.”

Eat Colorful Fruits and Vegetables:

A higher intake of fruit - especially berries, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts that are high in fiber - is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Recommended daily intake is two and a half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit, which amounts to around nine servings per day. The honest truth is if you’re eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables each day, the fiber in them will fill you up and you just won’t have room for foods that aren’t as good for you.

Choose Whole Grains:

When selecting carbohydrate sources, choose whole grains, which protect against diabetes, over refined grains and other highly processed carbohydrates, which can lead to increased risk. Whole grains have a lower glycemic index than refined grains, which means they are more difficult for the digestive system to break down into glucose, which leads to lower and slower increases in blood sugar and insulin and less stress on the pancreas. Whole grains like brown rice, whole oats, whole wheat, quinoa and barley also contain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that can reduce the risk of diabetes, while starches like white bread and rice, mashed potatoes, donuts and bagels have been stripped of their nutrients and have a much higher glycemic load. This leads to sustained blood sugar spikes and high insulin levels, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Skip Sugary Drinks:

Choosing water, coffee or tea to quench your thirst can drastically reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Those who consume one or more sugary beverages per day are 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who do not. Contrary to popular belief, artificially sweetened beverages that show zero grams of sugar on the nutrition label do not lessen diabetes risk; in other words, a diet soda is no better than a regular one. However, if you can’t quit cold-turkey, replacing one sugary beverage each day with water, coffee or tea is linked to a 2-10% lower risk of diabetes.

Choose Healthy Fats:

The American Diabetes Association recommends including more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – “good fats” - in your diet rather than trans fats or saturated fats – “bad fats.” Healthy fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocados, eggs and fish and are anti-inflammatory and have a positive effect on insulin sensitivity. Fats to be avoided are those found in fried and processed foods.

Limit Red and Processed Meats

A high intake of red meat and processed meats is associated with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The high iron levels in red meat may increase both oxidative stress and insulin resistance, while the high levels of amino acids in red meats can interfere with normal blood sugar metabolism. When selecting protein sources, choose poultry, fish, nuts, beans and whole grains more often than you choose red meats. 

Don’t Smoke

According to the CDC, smokers are approximately 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-smokers, with heavy smokers at an even higher risk. Smokers who do develop type 2 diabetes also often have a more difficult time managing their condition and are more likely to develop complications, such as heart and kidney disease, poor blood flow to the legs that can lead to infections, ulcers and amputations, loss of vision, and nerve damage.