More than 20 million people in the United States have diabetes. This puts them at increased risk for heart disease, limb amputation, blindness, and other serious health conditions. Fortunately, type 2 diabetes—the most common type of diabetes—can be prevented. You may be able to reverse its course if you make the right lifestyle choices.

Before type 2 diabetes sets in, a condition known as pre-diabetes usually occurs. If you have pre-diabetes, your blood sugar level is higher than normal but not high enough to be considered diabetes. The CDC estimates that about 54 million Americans currently have pre-diabetes. The condition shouldn’t be taken lightly. Having pre-diabetes means that you are likely to develop full-blown diabetes within 10 years. But it’s not a sure thing. Making healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent type 2 diabetes from developing, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) says.

The telltale signs

The warning signs of uncontrolled diabetes include excessive thirst and frequent urination, constant hunger, unexplained weight loss, and numbness or tingling sensations in the hands and feet. Pre-diabetes, however, can come with no symptoms. In some cases, a person’s body shape can be a clue. Carrying an excess amount of weight around the waist, or having an apple-shaped figure, has been linked to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

A study in the September 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tracked the health of more than 6,000 men and women for eight years. At the time the study began, the participants were diagnosed as not having diabetes. At the end of the study, researchers found that waist size was a strong predictor for diabetes. This was particularly true in women. Women in the study with a larger waist were 10 times more likely to develop diabetes than those with a smaller waist.

According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, women who have a waist measurement of more than 35 inches, and men whose waist size is more than 40 inches, are particularly at risk for diabetes.

Dark patches of skin that develop behind the neck and on the elbows or knees may also be a warning sign of pre-diabetes. These dark patches are the result of having excess insulin in the body. For women, excess facial and body hair, irregular menstrual cycles, severe acne, and fertility problems may also be signs of the condition.

Risk factors

The risk for diabetes and pre-diabetes increases with age. The ADA recommends blood glucose screening for everyone at age 45. People younger than age 45 should also talk with their health care provider about getting tested for diabetes or pre-diabetes, particularly if they have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Weight. Being overweight or obese is one of the most common risk factors for pre-diabetes. Approximately 80 percent of people who have type 2 diabetes are overweight.

  • Inactivity. Being inactive or exercising fewer than three times a week increases your risk for diabetes.

  • Family history. Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes increases your risk for disease.

  • Race. Although it’s unclear why, people from certain ethnic backgrounds are at increased risk for diabetes, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders.

  • High blood pressure. People who have a blood pressure of 140/90 mm Hg or higher are at increased risk.

  • Blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. People with an HDL ("good") cholesterol level of 35 or lower, or a triglyceride level of 250 or higher, have a higher risk for diabetes.

Lifestyle changes help

The most important steps to reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes involve changes to diet, exercise, and behavior. If you’re at risk for pre-diabetes, you may be able to reverse it through these steps:

  • Manage your blood sugar level. Eat a diet that is low in fat and calories. Focus on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Because they are high in soluble fiber, they can help control blood insulin and glucose levels.

  • Stay active. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. Exercise helps reduce insulin resistance.

  • Lose excess weight. You can improve your blood sugar level and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease by losing as little as 5 percent of your body weight.

Even small lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk for diabetes. In fact, a 2002 study called the Diabetes Prevention Program looked at the effects of a new exercise routine in more than 3,000 people with pre-diabetes. The participants lost 5 to 7 percent of their total weight simply by watching their diet and exercising for a half hour a day at least five times a week. They reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.

Medical Reviewer: [Ferguson, Monica MD, Louise Akin, RN, BSN] Last Annual Review Date: 2011-03-30T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

Your Guide to Diabetes