This year, the World Economic Forum described diabetes as a “silent epidemic,” noting that it was three times as deadly as COVID. Ironically, the side effects many of us experienced because of COVID-related lockdowns and isolation—less physical activity, poor diet, weight gain—are major risk factors for diabetes. And that comes with potentially serious health consequences.
In diabetes, the body becomes unable to process blood sugar and transport it to the body’s cells for energy. Chronically elevated blood sugar levels can damage the linings of blood vessels, leading to heart disease, stroke, blindness, even amputation. Experts predict that one in 10 people will have diabetes by the year 2045.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Two doctors told us how you can slash your diabetes risk dramatically by making some simple lifestyle changes you can start today.
Start With One Thing
Feeling overwhelmed by “shoulds” when it comes to reducing your diabetes risk? Begin with one new healthy behavior. “As an endocrinologist, I often recommend to my patients to pick one way they would like to impact their diabetes,” says Navinder Jassil, MD, director of endocrinology and diabetes services at Deborah Specialty Physicians in New Jersey. “For some, it’s healthy eating or increasing physical activity. When it comes to healthy eating, I encourage my patients to monitor their carb intake, reduce the amount of simple sugars, and eat plenty of vegetables.”
Eat Less Processed Food
To see real results, eat more whole, unprocessed foods. “A lot of the foods we eat are diabetogenic. What that means is they increase your risk for insulin resistance and diabetes,” says Aaron Hartman, MD, a board-certified functional medicine and integrative medicine doctor in Richmond, Virginia, and assistant clinical professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Sugars are one diabetogenic food. Processed carbohydrates are another. The first rule of thumb, if you want to prevent diabetes, is to eat real food. If you eat real food, all of a sudden you’re avoiding the processing chemicals, and you’re eating nutrient-dense food.”
“Exercise increases your muscles, as well as insulin sensitivity,” says Hartman. “One of the key components of diabetes is insulin resistance. If your muscles, which are the biggest consumer of sugar in your body, become insulin resistant, over time the levels in your blood will go up. So simple exercise is a great way to make your muscles sensitive to insulin and also make your body utilize your insulin levels even better. This can be gentle movement like walking.”
Concurs Jassil: “In terms of physical activity, all activity counts. This means parking far away in the parking lot, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and running around with your children.”
Do Resistance Training
Once you’ve amped up your physical activity, adding resistance training can have additional benefits for diabetes risk. “Cardiovascular exercise helps burn glucose in the short term. Building muscle with resistance training will help keep your glucose down in the long term,” says Jassil. “Many of my patients focus on cardiovascular exercise, which is helpful, but the addition of building muscle also impacts the long term, with keeping your weight and glucose down.”
Try Timed Eating
“One of my favorite biohacks for diabetes and insulin resistance has become interval fasting or timed eating,” says Hartman. In this regimen, you eat only during one 8- to 12-hour window each day. “This gives your liver a rest, which makes a lot of glucose in your body, and you also rest your gut microbiome. What this does is allow your metabolism to catch up with the food you ate,” he says. “Combine this with eating real food and exercise, and I’ve seen some diabetics have massive weight reductions, as well as A1C test reductions.”
“Balance is key,” says Jassil. “If you want that piece of cake, have it—just not every day.”