|Beatriz Cruz (Photo by Walter Urie)|
Type 2 diabetes is on the rise. While several factors can increase the risk of developing it, most relate to lifestyle. That’s good news because it means we have tools for prevention. The right choices can bring blood-sugar numbers back where they belong.
A recent study confirmed that eating more healthful foods and exercising to lose weight — even just a few pounds — can cut diabetes risk by more than half. But exactly how does changing your habits lower your risk? City of Hope’s Beatriz Cruz, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.E., clinical dietitian and an expert in diabetes nutrition, recently provided more details on how lifestyle changes can help you gain the upper hand on the disease.
EHope: How does changing your diet influence your risk of diabetes?
Beatriz Cruz: A healthy diet can keep your blood sugars stable, minimizing stress on your pancreas. Constantly eating foods that raise your blood sugars to high levels puts added stress on your pancreas to continuously produce insulin. Healthy eating also keeps your weight under control. Overeating unhealthy foods and gaining weight, especially around the belly area, increases your risk.
EH: Does it matter what you eat, or is it just how much you eat?
BC: Research has shown that what you eat is important, but the amount is really the major factor. We teach patients to count carbohydrates, or carbs, and set goals for each meal. We also help them choose the right foods, generally those containing lots of fiber, which allows them to get their necessary carbohydrates but in a form that will keep them feeling full while providing more essential nutrients.
EH: What are low-glycemic diets, and do they really work?
BC: Glycemic index is a measure of how a carb-containing food affects blood sugar. Low-glycemic foods raise blood sugar more slowly. They tend to be high in fiber. Examples are whole grains, fruits and vegetables. We don’t recommend going just by glycemic index because it can be confusing and many healthy foods, such as cantaloupe and carrots, are considered to be high-glycemic index. Instead, we focus on total carbs in the diet and only use glycemic index to help fine-tune diet when appropriate.
EH: How does exercise lower diabetes risk?
BC: First, exercise burns calories, which helps lower weight. This is very important because in a recent study researchers found that people who lost 5 to 7 percent of their body weight could decrease their diabetes risk by as much as 58 percent. This included diet control, of course, but exercise played a big role. Second, exercise stimulates muscles, which makes them more sensitive to insulin and able to process sugars more effectively, lowering blood sugar levels.
EH: Which is more important to controlling diabetes, exercise or diet? Or is it just a matter of lowering calories period?
BC: Both are important; it’s not just calories. Good nutrition matters. There are some nutrients that are being looked at in the prevention of type 2 diabetes like vitamin D and antioxidants; these can only be attained through a healthy diet. Good nutrition can contribute to overall health and lower diabetes risk.
EH: Can you find out early if you’re heading toward diabetes, and if so, can you stop it?
BC: Yes. In recent years researchers have identified a condition called pre-diabetes. It’s marked by high blood sugar, but it’s not yet diabetes. They estimate about 57 million people have this. Healthy diet and exercise dramatically reduce the risk of it becoming diabetes.
EH: Are there other lifestyle changes that can help you avoid type 2 diabetes or reverse it once you already have it?
BC: Learning to manage stress can help significantly. Also, smoking and secondhand smoke can speed up some of the complications from diabetes, so we strongly recommend avoiding those.
The American Diabetes Association’s Web site has more information about controlling your risk of type 2 diabetes.