Five tips for lowering your diabetes risk

Nearly 300 Australians develop diabetes every single day, with most suffering from type 2, a disease which is closely linked to an unhealthy lifestyle.

The good news is that most people can delay type 2 diabetes or avoid it altogether. To mark National Diabetes Week, July 10-16, Professor Bruce Neal, director of the Food Policy division at The George Institute for Global Health, shares his top five tips for lowering your diabetes risk.

1. Don’t get fat!

The single biggest cause of type 2 diabetes is being overweight or obese.  If like many Australians you spend most of your life in the car, at a desk or on the couch, then you're at high risk for overweight or obesity and have a greatly increased risk of getting diabetes.  “The modern lifestyle is the key to understanding and preventing diabetes,” explains Professor Neal.  "We evolved a physiology for a completely different lifestyle where food was scarce and exercise was plentiful."

Of course weight control is incredibly difficult for many people.  Professor Neal is firmly of the view that government and the food industry need to do much more to help people maintain a healthy weight.  “It’s not fashionable to advocate for the nanny state,” says Professor Neal, “but letting the food industry hook children on addictive junk is entirely unreasonable.  We have to have better controls because kids and parents can’t do it alone.’’

2. Eat a bit less junk

Sitting back and waiting for the government to solve the problem clearly isn’t going to work either. What you eat is the primary determinant of your weight and your diabetes risk and you can do something about it too.  The problem foods are the so-called discretionary foods and junk foods.  Heavily advertised, massively processed and looking nothing like what they are made from, these foods are the key to the obesity crisis. 

Professor Neal’s advice is don’t try and cut them out completely but make some small changes that are sustainable – next time you shop don’t buy two packets of biscuits but instead get one packet and some fruit or nuts to replace the other.  When you next order take out think about skipping one of the side dishes or use the menu board labelling to choose an option with less energy (kilojoules/calories). For some people, the kilojoule labels required on the menu boards of chain restaurants have been shown to reduce the energy content of junk food purchases by 10 to 15%.  That’s more than enough to stop you getting fat.

3. Use the Health Star Rating food labels

Already there are some 3000 foods on the shelves with a label that shows between ½ star and 5 stars.  And the number should increase rapidly.  Buy foods with Star labels and choose the option with the most stars.  If something doesn’t have a star label it’s probably got something to hide so think twice before picking it.  The exception, of course, is fruits and vegetables which almost always get 5 stars and are always a good choice even if not labelled with stars.

4. Get a little more exercise

The fitter and healthier you are, the less likely you are to get overweight and the less likely you are to get diabetes.  "Every little bit of exercise you can add to your daily routine is going to help," Neal says. Although don’t think you can simply trade exercise against an unhealthy diet.  ‘’Unless you are prepared to drag a tractor tyre around after you 24 hours a day it’s almost impossible to burn off the excess calories that come from junk foods."

The evidence is clear.  More activity is almost always good although it’s often not a great way of losing weight.  It’s also possible that increased physical activity may directly protect against the risk of developing diabetes and it certainly helps with diabetes management amongst those that have the condition.

5. If you already have diabetes

All the messages above still apply.  Weight control, eating healthy foods and getting plenty of physical activity are fundamental to the good management of diabetes.  However, if you have diabetes you almost certainly also need medical treatment.  There are some incredibly effective ways of preventing the complications of diabetes with drug therapies and these are a must for most people with the condition.  Alongside drugs to control blood sugar levels, blood pressure lowering and cholesterol lowering are a backbone of treatment for many.  Drug therapy won’t replace a healthy lifestyle but can bring important additional protection.