While awareness campaigns have opened up the conversation about diabetes, it remains a major health risk for Canadians. According to Diabetes Canada, 11 million Canadians are living with diabetes or prediabetes in 2019 – that’s nearly 30% of the entire population.
Take into account that diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and kidney failure, and it’s clear that diabetes prevention has far-reaching benefits beyond reducing risk for the disease itself. Type 1 diabetes can’t as yet be prevented, but its more prevalent cousin, type 2, can be avoided.
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Lifestyle modification is the key. And while weight management, a healthy diet and regular exercise help manage your risk, these aren’t the only prevention strategies that work. Here are some surprising lifestyle tips that lower your diabetes risk, so you can protect yourself and your family.
1. Find time for rest and relaxation
You might stay active and eat well, but if you’re not taking time for a little R&R, you may still face a higher risk of diabetes. “Sleep deprivation is associated with increased levels of stress hormones, weight gain and the development of insulin resistance, and in susceptible individuals, type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. David Lau, Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, and former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes. “And stress management is helpful in reducing insulin resistance and hence diabetes risk.”
Taking just a few minutes for yourself can make a big difference in your relaxation levels, and mindful breathing is a great way to start. "When you’re paying attention to your breath, it will change automatically,” says fitness professional Nathalie Lacombe. “It will slow down, it will get softer, and you’ll realize if you’re holding onto tension.” Take mini-breaks throughout the day for mindful breathing to help diffuse stress. At night, unplug and relax for at least 30 minutes before bed to prepare mentally for sleep, so the concerns of the day are less likely to keep you tossing and turning.
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2. Limit all refined carbs – not just sugar
It’s no secret that sugar is linked to diabetes, but you need to look at refined carbs, too. “It’s just as much about the flour as it is about the sugar,” says Nicole Fetterly, a registered dietitian based in Vancouver. “We tend to eat way too many carbohydrates, but not enough whole grains.”
Fetterly recommends aiming to make whole grains as close to 100% of your daily grain intake as you can, and the new Canada’s Food Guide agrees. Experiment with barley, millet, amaranth, beans, peas and lentils instead of eating white bread, rice and pasta. Using alternative flours like chickpea flour, almond flour or coconut flour in your cooking and baking also helps you enjoy some of the treats you love without the refined grains.
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3. Stay active all day – not just during exercise
Hitting the gym is great for your overall fitness, but you can’t outrun a sedentary lifestyle. “Sitting is thought to be the new tobacco,” says Lau. “It is associated with higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and research suggests that moving for a few minutes every hour is associated with a lower risk for diabetes.”
Get moving at least once an hour, or, ideally, every half-hour, recommends Lacombe, and set a timer on your phone to remind you when it’s time to get up. Fit in extra steps at the office by heading to the farthest washroom, water cooler and coffee machine rather than the closest one. At home, get moving during playtime with your children or by taking Fido for an extra stroll. Or simply get out and explore your neighbourhood by checking out a new trail or walking to a local shop or café. "Just like our pets, we need to be walked a few times a day," Lacombe says.
Maintain a healthy weight
Tweaking your healthy diet, getting enough rest and cutting down on “couch potato” time all give you an advantage in preventing diabetes, but it's important to focus on the big lifestyle risks, too. Maintaining a healthy body weight is still paramount for prevention, says Lau. “A modest weight loss of 1 kg a year is associated with a reduced diabetes risk of 16%,” he explains.
Are you at risk for diabetes?
Find out what your risk is for having prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, with the CANRISK test. If it turns out you are at risk, your doctor can recommend a personalized lifestyle plan that works for you and your family.