Approximately 1 in 3 American adults have prediabetes, meaning you have a higher than normal blood sugar, but it’s not high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes, yet. Most alarmingly, 84% of those with prediabetes have no idea they have it, making it very likely that over time, it will develop into type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes also puts people at risk of heart disease and stroke, making it especially important that people approach prevention and mitigation well before prediabetes sets in and transitions to more serious health concerns. Intervention is possible; progression from prediabetes to diabetes is not set in stone. Today we will outline risk factors, preventative steps, and lifestyle adjustments that can all impact whether an individual develops prediabetes.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
Prediabetes doesn’t usually have any signs or symptoms. The exact cause of prediabetes is also unknown. But family history and genetics appear to play an important role. A lack of regular physical activity and being overweight also appear to be important factors.
If you have any of the risk factors for prediabetes, which the CDC outlines as the following, it is important to speak to your provider about what can be done to prevent, or counteract, developing diabetes:
- Being overweight
- Being 45 years or older
- Having a parent, brother, or sister with type 2 diabetes
- Being physically active less than 3 times a week
- Ever having gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or giving birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome
Race and ethnicity are also a factor: African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans are at higher risk.
Diagnosis and the transition to diabetes
Your doctor may refer to prediabetes as the following:
- impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), which means higher-than-normal blood sugar after a meal
- impaired fasting glucose (IFG), which means higher-than-normal blood sugar in the morning before eating
- hemoglobin A1C level between 5.7 and 6.4 percent
Being in a position to prevent prediabetes and diabetes is ideal- diabetes is a lifelong battle that can impact every major organ in the body. Some complications include nerve damage (potentially leading to amputation of limbs), blindness, and kidney failure. Diabetes has even been linked to double the risk of depression, which becomes even more of a risk if other health complications set in. Fortunately, a diagnosis of prediabetes does not mean that diabetes is an inevitable outcome.
However, as most people do not realize that they have prediabetes, often lifestyle factors slowly result in the individual developing diabetes. Classic signs and symptoms that the body is transitioning from prediabetes to diabetes are:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Excess hunger
- Blurred vision
Prevention and managing prediabetes
A prediabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll surely develop type 2 diabetes. Intervention is essential to regulate your blood sugar and maintain it at normal levels. This is largely impacted by the foods you eat and secondly, by physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight. Before we go into what foods and activity levels can help prevent and unravel a prediabetes diagnosis, it is important to understand what impacts blood sugar levels.
Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that helps your body convert glucose into energy. Carbohydrates from the foods you eat are converted into glucose, also known as blood sugar. That glucose stays in your bloodstream until your pancreas releases insulin. The insulin interacts with your cells to allow the glucose to enter, where it’s then used as energy for the body. A lack of insulin or when insulin is not working effectively results in glucose accumulating in the bloodstream, causing blood sugar to rise.
Foods that support healthy blood sugar levels
Eating foods that help your body regulate blood sugar levels is key. The glycemic index (GI) helps distinguish how foods impact blood sugar levels. In a nutshell, foods that are high on the GI include processed, refined foods that largely have little nutritional value and will raise your blood sugar faster. Some examples are: white bread, soda, processed foods like chips, some microwave meals, and some baked goods.
Foods ranked lower on the scale are high fiber foods that will prevent blood sugar spikes and generally support your body in maintaining consistent blood sugar levels. Low glycemic index foods include oatmeal (not instant), beans and legumes, whole grains, and nonstarchy vegetables (asparagus, Brussells sprouts, broccoli). You can read more here about how a whole-food diet benefits your body and includes many (if not most) of the foods that help you prevent or counteract prediabetes. Read more here about how foods impact your body, here.
A diet high in saturated fats can prevent people from maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for developing prediabetes and also increases the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. Limit saturated fats and choose dietary fats wisely- read here to learn the difference between different fats.
Monitoring food portions also helps manage blood sugar and a healthy weight. If you have prediabetes, losing a small amount of weight if you’re overweight can lower your risk- portion control is one factor in losing weight. You can learn more about ways to support healthy weight loss in our post here.
Regular physical activity is vital
Regular exercise benefits the whole body beyond just helping maintain a healthy weight. Exercise can help prevent and manage issues like heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, cancer, and pain. For more information about how exercise benefits the body, read here. Making small additions to physical activity can make a difference too. Trying to add in a long, strenuous exercise session can be overwhelming, not to mention can likely lead to injury. Add a few minutes a day- even walking in place while watching your favorite show (rather than sitting), then add in a few equipment-free exercises, slowly working up to a daily 30-minute session. Slowly building a routine makes it more likely that it will be something that you maintain as a new, healthy lifestyle. Every Tuesday, we share easy exercises that can be done at home- check out the archives here.
Routine exams and labs are imperative to catching a multitude of issues that can be corrected by simple interventions before they become major concerns. Prediabetes is just one diagnosis that can be easily controlled when found early. Diet, weight loss, and exercise can all prevent progression. Some age groups, backgrounds and families may be more susceptible, but anyone can be a risk. That’s why annual physicals are so important. Too many issues may be smoldering just under the surface -diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more. Checking regularly will ensure they are found and followed closely.