Diabetes diagnoses are continuing to increase, with the number of people living with the condition more than doubling in the past 20 years. The majority of people diagnosed with diabetes have type-2 diabetes. The condition is linked to many other health complications such as heart disease, nerve damage, foot problems, vision loss and kidney failure.

According to charity organisation Diabetes UK, 12.3 million people are currently living with an increased risk of developing the condition. However, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing diabetes by following a healthy diet and lifestyle as much as possible.

Firstly, it is important to know if you are classed as at-risk. Your GP may have already discussed your diabetes risk with you, or you can use the online NHS tool to get an idea of your risk of developing type-2 diabetes in the next ten years.

One factor that can play a part in diabetes prevention is diet. We got in touch with Nutritional Therapist Marcelle Rose, of Marcelle Rose Nutrition, to find out how we can be more mindful of diabetes prevention when making food choices.

Does everyone need to be mindful of their diabetes risk?

To some extent, yes.

Type 2 diabetes is not limited to one particular group of people, and anyone can develop the condition. However, there are certain factors (such as family history and genetics) that can put you at a higher risk than others.

Marcelle tells us: ‘Type 2 diabetes used to be commonly known as adult onset diabetes, however this condition, mainly faced by adults, has sadly now become common in children.

Obese children are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those of a healthy weight. However, there is a misconception that only obese people are likely to become diabetic. It is now estimated that 50 percent of people with a normal body mass index (BMI) will still be susceptible to chronic disease such as diabetes.’

What are some specific risk factors that we should be aware of?

Marcelle goes on to explain: You may be more at risk of developing diabetes if:

  • you consume a diet high in sugars and refined processed foods,
  • you are a less active person,
  • you have a family history of type 2 diabetes,
  • you are of Black African, South Asian or African Caribbean origin,
  • you developed gestational diabetes when pregnant,
  • or if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).’

If you have concerns about any of the risk factors listed above, you should speak to your doctor.

How can diet be used to prevent diabetes?

Our eating habits can impact our type 2 diabetes risk. Diet and nutritional choices can be very personal and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating.

However, if you want to take practical action for preventing diabetes then Marcelle advises there are some steps you can take, by looking at what you eat.

‘Meal planning can sound like a bit of a chore but it can be especially helpful when switching to healthier options, and it can end up saving you time too.

Being prepared and organised, having the foods you need at home and saving time by batch cooking and freezing portions can all help to reduce the likelihood of eating the wrong kinds of foods.’

If you do start meal planning, what sort of meal schedule should you try to follow?

Marcelle says: ‘It’s best to eat three well-balanced meals a day and have up to two healthy snacks, if needed. This will help to keep your blood sugar balanced and keep cravings for sugary foods at bay.

The important thing is to eat foods which keep you feeling fuller for longer. Don’t allow yourself to become starving hungry, so you end up having to go for anything you can get your hands on.’

Making changes to our diet can mean that we need to pay a bit more attention to the foods we choose to put in our shopping basket and ultimately our bodies. It can take time to get used to looking at labels and making recipes from scratch, but if it can help to prevent diabetes then it is time well spent.

Marcells tells us: ‘Unfortunately we all need to become label savvy these days - it can be very easy for food manufacturers to sneak sugar into processed foods and this is not just the sweet stuff.

Most shop bought soups, sauces and even some breads contain sugar. Look out for ingredients ending in ‘ose’ and other ingredients such as caramel, corn syrup and maltodextrin, which are names the manufacturers can use to disguise the fact that there are added sugars in the food.’

Now that we know that there can be hidden sugars in foods we might not usually think of, what’s the best way of identifying the amount of sugar present in a food item?

‘Check the percentage of sugar in any food product by looking at the grams of sugar per 100 grams (rather than per portion).’ Marcelle goes on to explain: ‘This is an easy way to compare the added sugar in similar products. Nutrition contents tables can be deceptive if food manufacturers choose to use very small portion sizes.’

If you notice that some of your favourite foods have high amounts of sugars in them, then opting to cook whole meals from scratch can be a good alternative.

Marcelle tells us: ‘Cooking from scratch is a great way to ensure that you’re putting the right kind of ingredients into your meals and you can control the amount of sugar too. Try to think of foods and meals you can make yourself rather than going for shop bought versions.’

Prediabetes and prevention

Prediabetes or borderline diabetes is characterised by high blood glucose levels. The levels are not quite high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes, but there is a strong chance that the condition could progress into type 2 diabetes.

However, it is possible to reverse prediabetes by making a considered effort to improve diet and introduce regular physical exercise. So, what dietary steps can we take to stop prediabetes turning into a full-blown diagnosis?

Marcelle explains: ‘It goes without saying that cutting down on sugar is imperative if you’re at the pre-diabetes stage. But it’s not just sugar that’s the problem. Insulin is made by the body in response to the carbohydrates we eat. The more refined the carbohydrate, the more it can spike blood sugar and thus more insulin is produced. Over time, this process results in our cells becoming less sensitive to insulin.’

We’ve previously written about what types of food contribute to diabetes including a closer look at glycemic index and glycemic load; both of which are especially important for people living with a diabetes diagnosis.

Marcelle has provided us with several ideas on making some basic food switches. She says: ‘Avoiding foods such as white rice, white bread, white pasta, pastries, cakes and biscuits can help prevent insulin resistance progressing to diabetes. Instead switch to wholegrains such as brown rice, wholegrain pasta, quinoa, oats and good quality whole grain bread. These foods should make up no more than a quarter of your plate.

Foods containing healthy fats, protein and fibre will keep you feeling fuller for longer. These include plenty of vegetables, in addition to nuts, seeds, beans and lentils, fish, meat, eggs and limited fresh fruit.

Aim for:

  • at least 5 portions of vegetables a day,
  • protein with every meal
  • and include healthy fats in your daily diet.

Choosing healthy fats instead of low-fat options can also be beneficial, contrary to what many may think. Healthy fats include oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocado and olive oil.’

Small steps can have a big impact

Taking action to prevent diabetes doesn’t need to be overwhelming. It is good to start with small sustainable steps, rather than a complete overhaul which might be more difficult to maintain.

Marcelle explains: ‘We are all juggling busy lives - work, kids and elderly parents. For some people, making healthy home cooked meals is very new to them.

Some of my clients are extremely knowledgeable about what a healthy diet should look like, and roughly what they should be doing to avoid the development of diabetes, but they need support and coaching to get them on track.

However, for others it really is about starting with the basics, often small steps and changes are needed at a time. With the right knowledge, guidance and coaching they can take ownership of their health and ensure these changes are for the long term.’

Getting support to prevent diabetes

Making a commitment to dietary changes in order to prevent diabetes, or reverse a prediabetes diagnosis, can be a catalyst for a healthier lifestyle. It doesn’t have to mean completely removing foods that you enjoy. Instead the focus can be on having the knowledge to make better-informed food choices.

If you do come across any difficulties it can be a good idea to have someone to lean on for support or advice.

Marcelle tells us: ‘For anyone having trouble sticking to their plan, I would suggest that they avoid doing it in isolation. Instead ask your family to join in with your new way of eating or buddy up with a friend to make it fun and provide you with some motivation and accountability.

There are lots of communities on social media that can be helpful - I have a Facebook group ‘Fuss Free Healthy Eating’ which is dedicated to making healthy eating easier. It’s free to join and you can get plenty of tips, hacks and ideas for making simple home cooked meals.

For anyone really struggling to make dietary changes and perhaps finding it all too overwhelming, it can be beneficial to seek help from a qualified, registered nutrition professional, who will provide the support and motivation needed.’