It’s no secret that Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic: More than 37 million people in the U.S. currently have the condition. That means that more than 11% of the population lives with a disease that can have serious, lifelong health consequences.
What’s even more alarming is that an additional 30% of Americans, or 96 million, have prediabetes — a condition that can put you on the fast track to Type 2 diabetes. But with the right lifestyle choices and changes, you can stop the progression from prediabetes to Type 2 diabetes.
What is prediabetes?
Prediabetes describes a situation when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough to signal diabetes. People with prediabetes also have a significantly higher risk of heart disease and stroke — even before progressing to Type 2 diabetes.
Think of a prediabetes diagnosis as a call to action. If you do nothing, you have a very high chance of being diagnosed with diabetes in the next few years. But if you start making changes to your health and lifestyle, you may be able to avoid diabetes forever.
How do I know if I have prediabetes?
Prediabetes often has no signs or symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 8 out of 10 people with prediabetes don’t know they have it. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your risk factors and about when and how often you should test your blood sugar.
A simple blood test measures your blood sugar levels over the past three months. This number — your A1C — determines whether you have prediabetes or diabetes:
- Lower than 5.7% indicates normal blood sugar
- 5.7% to 6.4% is prediabetes
- 6.5% or higher is diabetes
Everyone should get their A1C tested by age 45 — sooner if you are overweight or have other risk factors for diabetes. After that first baseline test, your doctor will determine how often you should retest.
Who’s at risk of prediabetes?
Certain factors can make you more likely to become prediabetic (and go on to develop diabetes). These include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Being 45 years old or older
- Having a family history of Type 2 diabetes
- Having gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy)
- Not getting regular physical activity
Lifestyle changes that prevent Type 2 diabetes
As many as 70% of people with prediabetes will go on to develop diabetes. But you don’t have to become one of them. Your lifestyle choices have the power to either push you closer to diabetes or prevent it altogether.
Start with small changes and work toward attainable goals. Telling yourself you need to overhaul every aspect of your lifestyle at once is often a recipe for failure. But if you set realistic goals, you can feel empowered by your successes.
Lifestyle changes that will improve your overall health and help you prevent diabetes include:
- Being more physically active: Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week. That could be as simple as five 30-minute walks. If that’s too much to start with, do what you can and build up.
- Cutting back on sugars in your diet: Start paying attention to all the foods you eat that are loaded with added sugars. These include sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, cookies, candy and other desserts. Also look out for sneakier sugar-laden foods such as flavored yogurt and breakfast cereal.
- Filling your plate wisely: The American Diabetes Association recommends following the Diabetes Plate method, which shows you what foods to eat to avoid Type 2 diabetes. Fill half your dinner plate with non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, carrots, peppers or leafy greens). Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein (like chicken, fish, beans or tofu). And fill the other quarter with healthy carbohydrates (such as whole grains or fruit).
- Losing weight: Losing 5% to 7% of your body weight can help significantly reduce your risk of progressing to diabetes. For someone who weighs 200 pounds, that’s just 10 to 14 pounds.
Whether you have prediabetes or diabetes — or are at high risk of those diseases — making smart lifestyle changes now is the key to better health.