How can I reduce my risk of diabetes?

Diabetes UK says that 1 in 10 over 40s has diabetes, a number that has doubled in the last two decades. The research suggests that by 2030, around 5.5 million people will be suffering from the condition, which is fuelled by obesity.

There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2.

Type 1 is less common and is not preventable.

Type 2 is predominantly associated with weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle, but there are other risk factors. In the UK, 90 percent of diabetics are Type 2. If your blood sugars are abnormally high, but are not in the diabetic range, you may be diagnosed as prediabetic. This means you have a high risk of developing diabetes.

The good news is that around 80 percent of cases of Type 2 diabetes are preventable. Read on to find out what you can do to reduce your likelihood of developing the condition.

Calculate your risk

There are four million people with diabetes in the UK – that's one in every 16 people. Type 2 diabetes can come on slowly and the signs may not be obvious, so it is important to understand the risk factors. Take the test to find out if you are at risk.

People with Type 2 diabetes who have not yet been diagnosed can display symptoms such as extreme thirst, tiredness and needing to go to the toilet more often, but you could also be symptom free and still have Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.

Eating well to beat diabetes

If you are overweight or have a large waist, Type 2 diabetes can be avoided or delayed by reducing your weight and waist size. Every kilogram lost is associated with a 16 percent reduction in diabetes risk.

Along with increased activity, a healthy diet will help you manage your weight. No single weight-loss plan has been proven to be more effective than any other, so a healthy, balanced diet is recommended. If you have already been diagnosed as prediabetic or have Type 2 diabetes, it is particularly important to control your weight. Being a healthy weight makes diabetes easier to manage and can delay the onset of some of the most unpleasant complications of the disease.

What is a healthy diet?

  • Vegetables can be eaten in abundance without concern. They are low in calories and can cost very little, so include them in every meal.

    • Vegetables contain lots of fibre. This is important for good digestion, increases feelings of fullness after eating and slows down the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream.
    • The wider the variety of vegetables you eat the better. However, potatoes, yams, cassava and plantain do not count towards your five-a-day. These are very starchy, so should be enjoyed in moderation.
    • Beans and pulses do count towards your five-a-day, and are a great way to add lean protein to meals.
  • Wholegrains, such as brown rice and wholemeal bread, are complex carbohydrates. It has been questioned whether people with, or at risk of, Type 2 diabetes should eat carbohydrates at all, but when it comes to carbohydrates, quality counts.

    • It's all too easy to make refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta and most cereals, the foundation of every meal, but this should be avoided.
    • Wholegrains are better than refined grains because the husk of the seed is retained. This is often the most nutritious part of the grain, containing fibre and protein that keep you full for longer.
    • Read food labels carefully: some products boast that they contain 'healthy wholegrains', but are also full of sugar and other additives. Not that long ago, brown bread could just be white bread dyed brown.
  • Protein is associated with high levels of satiety (feelings of fullness) and can help control your appetite.

    • Some of the best sources of protein also contain fibre, vitamins and/or healthy fats. Other sources can be high in fat and salt; processed meats are a particular concern and should be consumed, at most, infrequently.
    • Good sources of protein include fish, lean unprocessed meats, lentils, low-fat Greek yoghurt, eggs, nuts and many beans (e.g. soya beans used to make tofu).
  • Fruits are good for us because they contain high levels of vitamins, minerals and fibre. However, some types are high in sugar, so aim to include a wide variety in your diet, but get most of your five-a-day from vegetables. Tropical fruits in particular tend to be high in sugar.

    • Choose whole fruits rather than juices and smoothies. Whole fruits contain fibre, which slows down your body's absorption of sugars and fills you up. Fruit juice has had most of the fibre removed so it is essentially a sugary drink. The same can apply to smoothies, but it depends how they have been made. Juicing also makes it harder to judge portion sizes, so it is easier to overindulge.
    • Dried fruits are typically very sugary and one portion is about a tablespoonful. It's easy to exceed this, so it's better to eat fresh fruits.
  • Fat is essential to good health, but we do not need much. It is also associated with high levels of satiety (fullness after eating), which helps control your appetite.

    • It’s important to eat the right types of fat. Some fats are bad for your health, for example trans fats, found in processed foods, and saturated fats, found in processed meats, ghee or lard. Other fats have a protective effect. Good fats include extra virgin olive oil and fats found in fish, vegetables and nuts.
    • Foods high in both fat and sugar are very bad for your health and should be avoided. Be cautious of foods labelled 'low-fat' because the fat can be replaced with other unhealthy ingredients.
  • Water. Thirst is often confused with hunger, so it’s important to keep hydrated if you are trying to eat better.

    • Water is best because it is calorie-free and there's no doubt that it's good for us. Many other drinks are laden with sugar or contain caffeine and additives; soft drinks, energy drinks and milky coffees are particularly bad.
    • Keep drinks containing artificial sweeteners as an occasional treat (there is evidence to suggest they increase our desire for sweet foods). If you don’t enjoy the taste of water, give it extra flavour by adding healthy ingredients such as citrus fruits, ginger or mint. Alternatively, try herbal teas.
    • The amount of water you need varies, but clear or very pale urine is a good sign that you are getting enough.

Burning calories: gym v everyday activity

Exercise is essential for good health. It not only helps to maintain a healthy weight, but can lower blood-sugar levels because it helps your body to use insulin more effectively. You don't need to join the gym, just aim for high levels of everyday activity, including walking, housework, playing with children and hobbies – anything that gets you moving.

Figures based on calories used by an 11-stone adult during 30 minutes of activity. Infographic compares washing car and brisk walk; mowing lawn and badminton; playing children’s games and jogging; energetic cleaning and aqua aerobics.

Can a strict diet reverse Type 2 diabetes?

New research has shown that blood-sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes can be returned to normal by following a very low-calorie diet. The participants in the studies followed total diet replacement programmes under close medical supervision.

The studies found that significant weight loss reduced the amount of fat present in the liver and pancreas. This in turn caused blood-sugar levels to return to normal and improved insulin function. The results were less encouraging for participants who had had Type 2 diabetes for more than four years and medical supervision was a crucial component of the research.