Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic. According to the National Diabetes Statistic Report, over ten percent of the adult population in the United States has diabetes, with another 88 million adults classified as having ‘pre-diabetes’ or insulin resistance, which can easily progress to full diabetes without lifestyle changes.
Although these statistics seem staggering, there is good news. There are steps you can take every day to fight against diabetes and to improve your management of this chronic illness. And it doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming either. To help, I asked top nutrition experts to share the simple steps you can take daily to lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (or better manage blood sugar).
The 5-Step Plan to Fight Type 2 Diabetes
If you want to fight against type 2 diabetes, you need to know what you are up against. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease caused by an inability to produce or use insulin effectively. And since insulin is the hormone that carries glucose, or sugar, from the bloodstream into your cells, this can be problematic. If your body cannot produce enough insulin to move glucose from your bloodstream into your cells, or if your cells are resistant to insulin, this can lead to a build-up of glucose in the bloodstream.
With lifestyle intervention such as changes in your food intake, physical activity, and even improved sleep, you can help your body to more efficiently use insulin once again. These lifestyle behaviors can help to improve insulin sensitivity in your body, meaning your cells allow insulin to enter without resistance and carry sugar in along with it. As insulin sensitivity improves, blood sugar levels decline. And that means a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, or better management of the disease if you have already been diagnosed. Here are the top five lifestyle habits that have the biggest impact on fighting against type 2 diabetes.
Step 1: Use this simple formula when filling your plate. The misconception that you need to avoid all carbohydrates to prevent diabetes is incorrect. However, how you eat carbohydrates, and what you eat them with, does matter. “Eating a carbohydrate such as fruit by itself may result in elevated blood sugar levels. But adding a protein to the meal can help regulate blood sugar,” explains Brown.
If carbohydrates are processed or don’t include fiber, they digest rapidly. However, when paired with a slower digested nutrient, such as protein, fat, or additional fiber, this can slow digestion and result in improved blood sugar levels. For instance, don’t just eat fruit by itself. Instead, pair it with a source of lean protein or plant-based fat such as a handful of nuts. This combination will result in a muted blood sugar response.
Step 2: Move more, sit less. Good news! Despite what many of us may think, sitting at a desk for hours on end is not the only cause of increased blood sugar levels. You can substantially increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes even if you are not getting enough overall physical activity each day.
The key to preventing it is to find some way to move more and sit less. This will help reduce insulin resistance, improve your metabolism, and make it easier for you to control your blood sugar levels with diet and medication. “As a result of exercise, your cells are more ‘willing’ to absorb blood sugar due to increased sensitivity to the hormone insulin,” explains New Jersey-based dietitian Christa Brown, MS, RDN. Need some inspo? Find a variety of fun and heart healthy workout ideas here.
No gym? No problem. “If you aren’t active right now, start by adding 10 minutes of body movement a day. Work up to 10 minutes at a time, three times a day with a goal of five days per week. Every step counts,” shares Toby Smithson, RD of DiabetesEveryDay.com and author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies.
But moving more shouldn’t be the only goal. The timing of when you move your body matters too. “Take a walk every day after meals. Since glucose is stored in the muscles of the body but only released for use with exercise, walking after a meal can promote lower blood sugar for hours after,” adds New York-based dietitian Jamie Feit, MS, RD.
Step 3: Eat more complex carbohydrates. Yes, carbohydrates impact blood sugar, but not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are fiber-rich and have more nutrients, and one in particular, called resistant starch, has been shown to improve blood sugar levels. “Resistant starch is a group of fiber found in foods such as unripened banana, oats, and white beans, that slowly ferment in the large intestine and skip being digested in the small intestine,” explains Smithson.
This prebiotic fiber has been associated with multiple health benefits from improved gut health, to lowered body weight, and improved insulin sensitivity. Adding more to your meal plan on a daily basis may go a long way in improving diabetes management and overall health.
Step 4: Take it one meal at a time, not one day at a time. When it comes to the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels, two things matter: the type of carbohydrate and the amount you eat at one sitting. Choosing slow digested, complex carbohydrates over simple sugars will help to prevent spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels. But even slower digested carbohydrates, such as whole grains, can spike blood sugar if you eat too much at one time.
Spacing carbohydrate-containing foods out throughout the day versus consuming them all at one time is the best way to manage blood sugar. Not sure how much is too much? A good rule of thumb is to aim for 30 to 45 grams of complex carbohydrates per meal. However, every individual will respond differently. That is why it is always best to ask your diabetes care team or registered dietitian for individualized guidance on the specific amount of carbohydrates you should eat at each meal.
If you’re someone who needs help managing your blood sugar levels, did you know that you can track your blood glucose trends in the Fitbit app? Find out how.
Step 5: Get serious about sleep. Did you know that after just one night of poor sleep your body can become more insulin resistant? On top of that, poor sleep can suppress the satiety hormones that allow you to feel full after eating, increasing appetite and cravings for simple carbohydrates during the day.
To prevent a lack of sleep from having a negative impact on health, get in the habit of practicing a healthy sleep routine. Start by setting a consistent sleep and wake time for yourself. Limit distractions in the bedroom as much as possible and avoid electronics for at least 30 minutes before you lay down. These small changes can lead to a more restful night and improved blood sugar in the morning. Find more tips to sleep soundly with Fitbit sleep tools here.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.