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Diabetes

Updated 05 September 2018

Preventing diabetes

While type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented, type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented by making certain lifestyle changes.

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1. Type 1 diabetes

At this stage, type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented. However, it’s an active area of research.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. In other words, it’s a disease in which the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues. Several risk factors and immune-related markers can now be used to identify first-degree relatives of individuals with type 1 diabetes who may eventually also develop the disease. However, the process by which the pancreatic beta cells are destroyed still isn’t completely understood.

Because researchers now have the ability to predict the development of type 1 diabetes in some people, they’ve started to explore the use of intervention therapy to halt or even prevent beta-cell destruction in certain individuals. But there’s still a long way to go – we’re not close to implementing effective preventative strategies for type 1 diabetes yet.

2. Type 2 diabetes

The good news is that around 60% of type 2 diabetes cases can be delayed or prevented by making certain lifestyle changes.

People at risk of type 2 diabetes can delay and even prevent the condition by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Doing regular physical activity.
  • Making healthy food choices.
  • Managing their blood pressure.
  • Managing their cholesterol levels.
  • Not smoking.

If you’re at risk of type 2 diabetes, it’s important to start with a prevention programme as soon as possible. Focus on the things you can change – for example, your diet and how active you are. It’s no good dwelling on things you cannot change such as your age or family history. 

Develop a game plan

The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), sponsored by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, suggest developing a “game plan”.

  • If you're overweight, set a weight-loss goal that you can reach. Try to lose 5-10% of your current weight.
  • Follow a healthy eating plan for weight loss. Research shows that you can delay or even prevent type 2 diabetes by following a reduced-kilojoule eating plan. 
  • Find ways to be active every day. Start slowly and add more activity until you get to at least 30 minutes of physical activity, like a brisk walk, most days of the week.
  • Keep track of your progress to help you reach your goals. Use your phone, a printed log, an online tracker, an app or another device to record your weight, what you eat and drink, and how long you’re active every day.
  • Ask your healthcare team about other steps you can take to prevent type 2 diabetes.

Get support for changing your lifestyle

It isn’t easy to make and stick to lifelong lifestyle changes. Get your friends and family involved by asking them to support your changes. You can also join a diabetes prevention programme to meet other people who are making similar changes.

Changing too many things at the same time can make them difficult to stick to in the long run. Start with small changes to your everyday routine and build up to more. The most important thing is to take action as soon as possible – the longer you wait, the greater your risk of developing diabetes.

Gestational diabetes

In some women, gestational diabetes cannot be prevented. Others may, however, be able to lower their chances of developing the condition by maintaining a healthy weight and not gaining too much weight during pregnancy. Regular exercise can also help keep blood-glucose levels within a healthy range.

If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant and are overweight, you can lower your chances of developing gestational diabetes by losing the extra weight and increasing your physical activity levels before you conceive. Taking these steps can improve the way in which your body uses insulin and help you to keep your blood-glucose levels within a normal, healthy range.

Once you’re already pregnant, don’t try to lose weight. You need to gain some weight for your baby to be healthy. However, gaining too much weight too quickly may increase your chances of developing gestational diabetes, so it’s important to keep a close check on your weight gain. Ask your doctor how much weight gain and physical activity is right for you during your pregnancy.

Information supplied by Jeannie Berg, diabetes educator and Chairperson of the Diabetes Education Society of South Africa (DESSA), and reviewed by Dr Joel Dave (MBChB PhD FCP Cert Endocrinology), Senior Specialist in the Division of Diabetic Medicine and Endocrinology, University of Cape Town. August 2018.

Read more:
Risk factors for diabetes

 

Ask the Expert

Diabetes expert

Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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