Written by Charlotte Haigh MacNeil
Meet our expert: Douglas Twenefour is Clinical Adviser at Diabetes UK, the UK's leading diabetes charity
Do you ever think about your blood sugar? Nine out of ten of us never give it a second thought and one third of us don’t know what our blood sugar level is, according to the nutrition experts at Pharma Nord.
But we should pay more attention because it’s estimated that one-in-three adults in Britain have pre-diabetes,which means your blood sugar levels are higher than normal and you have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Normally, the food you eat is broken down into glucose (a type of sugar) and passed into your bloodstream where insulin transports it to your body’s cells so that it can be turned into energy.
If your body isn’t producing quite enough insulin, or your cells are resisting it, the glucose stays in your blood causing high blood sugar and pre-diabetes. If this goes unchecked it could lead to Type 2 diabetes. But there is good news – pre-diabetes is an early warning that your body is heading towards Type 2 diabetes, but it’s not inevitable. With the right healthy lifestyle choices you could reduce your blood sugar – and your risk is Type 2 diabetes too.
What is Type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition estimated to affect 1.1 million women over 50 in the UK. Your risk increases as you age and having an unhealthy lifestyle and being overweight also adds to your
chances of developing diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes can’t be reversed – once you have it, you’ll have to manage it carefully with diet, lifestyle and sometimes medication. Without the right treatment it can damage the other organs in your body, which is why complications of diabetes can include blindness, kidney problems and nerve damage. Diabetes can also put you at risk of a range of other serious health problems, such as heart disease.
The risk factors
While diabetes causes symptoms such as fatigue and excessive thirst, pre-diabetes has no signs, meaning most people with it are completely unaware they’re affected. “Pre-diabetes is diagnosed by measuring your blood glucose levels,” says Douglas Twenefour, Clinical Adviser at Diabetes UK.
Do you have more than one of the risk factors below? If so, see your GP for a blood test.
- You're overweight or have a high body mass index (BMI). A healthy BMI is between 18 and 25- you can check yours at www.patient.co.uk/health/bmi-calculator. You are 80 times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if you have a BMI over 25.
- You have a large waist- more than 80cm/31 1/2 in for women or 94cm/37in for men-90cm/35in South Asian men. Fat that gathers around your belly releases hormones and chemicals that are linked with Type 2 diabetes. To accurately measure your waist, put the tape around the area where your belly button is.
- You have a parent, brother or sister, who has diabetes
- You're from an African-Caribbean, Black African, Chinese or South Asian background
- You are over 40
- You've had high blood pressure, a heart attack or a stroke in the past
- You're a woman with a history of polycystic ovaries, gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or gave birth to a baby over 10lbs
You can check your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes at riskscore.diabetes.org.uk/start
4 Steps to stay healthy
“If you have pre-diabetes, it’s important to remember that though you have an increased risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, there is still time to do something about it,” says Douglas. Take these four steps to lower your blood sugar.
1. Get to a healthy weight
“Losing any excess weight is your best chance of reducing your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes,” says Douglas. “Regular physical activity such as walking or cycling and eating a healthy balanced diet high in fruit and vegetables and low in sugar, salt and saturated fat is a great way to lose weight.”
You don’t have to skip sugary foods altogether – it’s total calories that matter more than specific foods, according to Douglas. It’s not thought that sugary foods cause diabetes, current research suggests that because sugar-rich foods are high in calories they can contribute to obesity which in turn could increase your risk of diabetes. Eating a balanced diet that includes a little sugar could still help you lose weight and reduce your overall diabetes risk.
2. Get checked
“Everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 should go for the five-yearly NHS Health Check, which assesses your risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and diabetes,” says Douglas. “You’ll also get support and advice to help reduce or manage high blood sugar if you have it.” Your local health authority willl send you a letter when yours is due.
3. Be active
As well as helping you lose weight, exercise can reduce your risk in other ways. Being active helps your body use insulin more efficiently. Plus, it can increase the amount of glucose your muscles use, so can sometimes help lower your blood glucose levels.
You should aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Try brisk walking, jogging, Zumba or cycling. You should also try to do a muscle-strengthening activity, such as yoga, twice a week.
You don’t need to do your exercise in big chunks and you can make it part of your daily life. For example, doing 15 minutes of gardening, then walking 15 minutes to the shops would count as one half-hour of exercise – and if you carry heavy shopping on the way home, that can count towards your muscle-strengthening activity.
4. Quit smoking
Research has linked smoking with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Studies have found it can lead to insulin resistance, and it might also have an effect on the way your body breaks down sugars from your food.
If you smoke, quit – speak to your GP for help or visit smokefree.gov
What about Type 1 diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes occurs when your pancreas can’t produce insulin. It often develops in childhood and is also called insulin-dependent diabetes, because people with it need to take insulin regularly. Unlike Type 2, Type 1 diabetes isn’t linked to lifestyle – it’s caused by an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks cells in the pancreas.
- There's more health advice in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.