Practically all of us either have a family member or friend who has type 2 diabetes. With an estimated 34 million Americans – one out of every 10 people – this makes type 2 diabetes the 7th leading cause of death in the United States.
But, even more concerning is the number of people with prediabetes, a condition in which the average amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood is high but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. There are approximately 88 million Americans – more than one in three – with prediabetes and even worse, 84% of these people, have no idea (yet) they have it.
How does prediabetes develop?
Every single person who has type 2 diabetes would have gone through the phase of prediabetes. Some people do get diagnosed with prediabetes before it has progressed into type 2 diabetes. But the majority of people, when told they had type 2 diabetes, had no idea their blood glucose levels were elevated or at what point they would have been in the prediabetes phase of the disease. This is a problem as there are important steps a person can take to at least slowdown and perhaps, even prevent prediabetes to begin with.
To understand prediabetes, it’s important to understand diabetes in general. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body has trouble using glucose for energy when cells become resistant to the action of insulin. When this happens, the pancreas makes more insulin to try to get cells to respond. Eventually, the pancreas can’t keep up and blood sugar builds up in the bloodstream. The difference between type 2 diabetes and prediabetes is how high blood sugar levels can get.
According to the American Diabetes Association, prediabetes is when the hemoglobin A1C test is from 5.7% to 6.4%, or having a fasting blood sugar level of 100 to 125 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl), or a blood sugar level of 140 to 199 mg/dl during an oral glucose tolerance test. Type 2 diabetes is when the hemoglobin A1C test registers at 6.5% or higher.
The problem of having elevated blood glucose is an increased risk for disease in several organs, such as retinopathy (eye), neuropathy (peripheral nerves), nephropathy (kidney disease), along with a 2-4 times the risk of having a heart attack or stroke and an increased risk of cognitive decline. Diabetes is essentially a disease that affects a person from head to toe.
Even having prediabetes or mildly elevated blood glucose levels can be dangerous setting the stage for triggering inflammation that damages blood vessels, causing them to narrow leading to blockages. Unfortunately, prediabetes has no symptoms which is why so many people are unaware they have it. Common risk factors for prediabetes include a family history of diabetes, poor diet, lack of exercise, excess weight gain, and chronic stress.
The best way to treat prediabetes is also the best way to prevent it. There are three big areas to focus on: Weight, exercise, and diet.
Carrying excess body weight can trigger inflammation in the body and places a person at a higher risk for many diseases and osteoarthritis in joints. If you are carrying excess weight, a small loss of just 5% to 7%, can lower your risk of prediabetes and protect you from eventually developing type 2 diabetes.
Staying active is critical for helping reach a healthier body weight. In fact, the driving force in preventing rebound weight gain is to have a consistent, regular exercise routine. The most important thing when choosing what physical activities to engage in, it to find an exercise you enjoy and will stick with long-term. These activities might include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, weight lifting, dancing, or yoga. Remember, if you look forward to exercising and you do it consistently, it can be a tremendous boost not only for reaching a healthy body weight but also for keeping blood glucose levels within a normal range.
This is probably the most important step in reducing your risk or preventing prediabetes to begin with. Start first with reducing your intake of simple carbohydrates that are high in sugar or white flour. These foods include white bread, white pasta, white rice, cake, cookies, any desserts, and sugary beverages like soda, energy drinks, lemonade or sweet tea. These carbohydrates are quickly digested and can cause blood sugar levels to quickly rise and fall. Eating these foods also can trigger cravings that may lead to overeating and weight gain.
Replace simple carbohydrate foods instead with complex carbohydrates with less sugar and offer more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, substances necessary for good overall health. These foods include whole-wheat bread, pasta, and rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, and nuts. Because of its high fiber content, fiber slows down the absorption of sugar helping balance blood sugar levels.
If you have concerns about having prediabetes, discuss this with your primary care physician. They can do a simple blood test called the hemoglobin A1C in the office to check your current risk of prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. If you are found to have either prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, it’s important to begin right away on steps to reduce your risk of future complications along with learning how to reduce elevated blood sugar levels.