Diabetes is a chronic disease affecting almost 26 million Americans. And with almost 80 million more Americans with pre-diabetes, the number of those living with the disease has a potential to grow significantly. There are three types of diabetes: gestational, which occurs during pregnancy; type 1, an autoimmune condition; and type 2, which primarily impacts individuals over 50.
As a medical doctor, I'm often approached by those with type 2 diabetes and asked if they could have done anything to prevent getting diabetes, or at least develop a less severe form of diabetes. In many cases, the answer is yes! There are lifestyle choices that you can implement in your 20s and 30s to help slow the progression of disease later in life.
While the below strategies can help you to prevent and delay type 2 diabetes, it's important to note that if you have a genetic predisposition, you'll have a higher risk of developing the disease. Therefore, it's imperative that anyone who falls in the high-risk category be extra diligent, get tested regularly, and follow the advice of his or her doctor to prevent the onset of disease. There are numerous cases of people diagnosed with diabetes with no prior relation to the condition; therefore, testing is important for everyone, not only for those in the high-risk category.
Here are five things you can do right now to help prevent type 2 diabetes:
1. Maintain the average weight for your height.
Walking around with extra pounds in your 20s and 30s could be the difference between developing a chronic illness later in life or staying healthy. During these decades, you're building a foundation for your future health, and you're at your prime physically. However, many of life’s changes, such as a demanding job, relationship crises, added stresses of starting a family, buying a home, etc., can all lead to couch potato behavior. Couple that with a greater temptation to misbehave with alcohol and rich foods, and the pounds can pack on. Maintaining an average weight during these decades not only could prevent diabetes in your 50s and beyond, but could also ward off other serious health conditions such as heart and joint diseases in your later years.
2. Avoid over-indulging in alcohol.
In our 20s, we hit the legal drinking age and for many this happens during the college years. Reckless behavior and excessive drinking are common across college campuses, but this behavior often continues well past graduation. Because the only real health problem an individual in their 20s experiences after a night of boozing is the unavoidable hangover, the health risks don’t seem as apparent. But alcohol consumption, and becoming accustomed to this behavior early in life can pose series health risks at that time and down the road, such as difficult-to-treat hypoglycemia. Also alcohol packs on additional pounds from consuming high amounts of empty calories.
3. Don't smoke.
Aside from the well-noted health risks associated with smoking, smoking affects the blood vessels and exacerbates any negative effect that elevated sugar has on the heart and circulatory system. The risk of developing microvascular complication is seriously increased in a person with diabetes who also smokes. This could lead to blindness, kidney failure and amputations. Not only will smoking damage your lungs, but it also increases inflammatory markers, which is implicated in the development of insulin resistance metabolism.
4. Watch your diet.
It might be common knowledge that eating cake with frosting everyday isn’t going to stave off diabetes, but there are other foods that contribute to the development of the disease. Processed carbohydrates such as white breads, bagels, white rice and pasta have a high glycemic index and glycemic load, and cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar requiring a strong insulin response. In a person who can produce insulin, but is resistant peripherally, that quickly leads to weight gain and poor metabolic control. In a person with no endogenous insulin, the dose either has to be increased or the sugar levels will be highly affected upwards.
Instead, switch to whole grains, which have a lower glycemic index. It's also better to opt for lean meats and nuts as a source of protein. In addition, many “health drinks” are loaded with processed sugar, including some fortified fruit juices, and the artificial sweeteners found in diet drinks may also pose a possible link to diabetes. To play it safe, water is always the best option for a beverage.
5. Exercise regularly.
Inactivity promotes obesity, which in turn could result in type 2 diabetes. Exercise helps the insulin onboard to be used more efficiently, and less of it is needed for each meal. Even a 20-minute walk every day will decrease your chance of developing diabetes. Using your muscles improves the ability of the body to use insulin and absorb glucose — so get moving!
By making small adjustments in your 20s and 30s, you are decreasing the odds of developing diabetes as you age. Remember, it's during this time that you are laying the foundation for your future health and increasing your chances for a longer, improved life.