In line with World Diabetes Day, health experts call for an increase in healthy eating and physical activity to reduce risk for the condition, which currently affects around 387 million people across the globe.

[A woman eating a salad]Share on Pinterest
Health experts say eating healthily and increasing exercise can dramatically reduce diabetes risk.

There are two main forms of diabetes: type 1, in which the body is unable to produce the hormone insulin, and type 2, in which the body is unable to use insulin effectively. Type 2 is the most common form, accounting for around 90% of all diabetes cases worldwide.

People with diabetes are at much greater risk for poor cardiovascular health than the general population. For example, the condition can increase heart attack risk by up to three times for men and five times for women.

“Women are normally protected from cardiovascular disease and get it later in life than men, but that benefit is eliminated if they have diabetes,” notes Prof. Lars Rydén, spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

What is more, cardiovascular disease is responsible for around 50-80% of deaths in people with diabetes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people with diabetes globally is expected to soar to 592 million by 2035 – an increase that experts attribute to a combination of low physical activity and increased intake of unhealthy foods.

“We have an increasing supply of food, including junk food, which is relatively cheap and heavily advertised – soft drinks with a lot of sugar, for example,” says Prof. Rydén. “The typical heart attack patient today is a sedentary, overweight person with type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, while in the past the average patient was a lean, stressed chain smoker.”

The majority of people are well aware that physical activity benefits health, and most countries have guidelines recommending how much activity one should engage in.

In the US, for example, guidelines state adults should take part in 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claim that less than half of adults meet these guidelines.

As such, Prof. Rydén and other leading health experts across Europe are calling for increased focus on healthy eating and exercise to reduce the risk of this potentially life-threatening condition.

Numerous studies have suggested a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of diabetes, as well as improve the health of people who already have the condition.

Earlier this year, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study that found people who engaged in healthy diet and exercise programs were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who did not engage in such programs. And more recently, a study found just short bursts of gentle exercise can lower blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes.

Fast facts about diabetes in the US
  • Around 29.1 million people in the US have diabetes
  • Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the US in 2010
  • In 2012, around 86 million Americans in the US aged 20 and older had pre-diabetes.

Learn more about diabetes

Prof. Rydén recommends following four simple steps that he believes can lower the risk for diabetes and heart-related health problems:

  1. Move around more
  2. Engage in moderate to vigorous activity at least 3 hours a week
  3. Avoid eating junk foods, particularly those high in sugar
  4. Instead, eat leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, lean meats, unsweetened yogurt and nuts.

Prof. Rydén says that while these are simple steps, they do require a lot of self-discipline, but the effects are worth it.

“We now have rock solid scientific evidence that people who have impaired glucose tolerance, which is a pre-stage of diabetes, can reduce their chances of getting diabetes and of dying from heart disease or other causes if they move more and eat healthy food,” he adds.

In addition, he recommends that individuals be screened to determine which individuals are at high risk for diabetes. This can be done via a simple questionnaire such as the Type 2 Diabetes Risk Test from the American Diabetes Association, or the Finnish Diabetes Risk Score (FINDRISC) questionnaire.

“A high score means you are at risk and a low score means you are pretty safe,” notes Prof. Rydén. “Imagine if all patients waiting for an appointment with their primary care physician filled in this one-page survey. We could find out who really needs urgent lifestyle changes.”

MNT recently reported on a study that found increasing intake of homemade meals may lower a person’s risk for type 2 diabetes.