While it’s true that your age or a family history of diabetes can affect your chances of developing the disease, your lifestyle plays a critical role, too. In fact, you may be surprised by how much a small number of daily habits can significantly raise your risk. Keep reading to see which matter most — and how to stay out of the danger zone.
1. Skipping breakfast
There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over the value of breakfast to your health. But a large review of studies published in 2019 in The Journal of Nutrition pretty much concluded that those who skip breakfast are at greater risk of getting diabetes than those who sit down for their oatmeal or eggs. It appears the magic isn’t the meal itself but in how those who eat breakfast were able to maintain a lower body mass index (BMI).
That’s likely because skipping breakfast sets you up to overeat the rest of the day, says Melinda Maryniuk, a registered dietitian and owner of Diabetes and Nutrition Consultants in Boston. “Even if you don’t feel hunger pangs, you think you’re entitled to more — snacks, a bigger serving — because breakfast wasn’t eaten.”
Not a fan of traditional breakfast foods? Keep in mind that “there are no rules about what foods need to be eaten at breakfast — choose things that are easy and you enjoy,” Maryniuk says. Melted cheese in a tortilla with avocado? Sure, that can be breakfast. A high-protein smoothie made with yogurt or cottage cheese and berries? That can be breakfast, too. Just make sure you include protein and fat (egg, cheese, tofu, nut butter), as well as a fiber-rich carb like whole fruit or whole-grain toast, she adds. And coffee lovers, drink up: A large review of studies looking at more than 1 million participants suggests that every additional cup of coffee consumed in a day was associated with a 9 percent lower risk for diabetes.
2. Sitting for longer than 30 minutes at a stretch
You already know that regular exercise is key to warding off a diabetes diagnosis. That’s because a half hour of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (like brisk walking or swimming) most days of the week keeps your weight in check and improves insulin sensitivity.
What you may not know is that sitting for prolonged periods — at the computer, on the couch, behind the wheel — carries risks of its own, and that exercise doesn’t offset these hazards.
In a large review of studies published in Annals of Internal Medicine, those who reported spending the most time sitting were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer than those who spent the least amount of time sitting. That’s why the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends everyone — even people who don’t have diabetes — get up every 30 minutes and do some form of light activity.
“Many studies now show that interrupting sitting with frequent movement improves how well your metabolism works and increases insulin sensitivity,” says Sheri Colberg, professor emerita of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and author of The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. “Most people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes have some degree of insulin resistance; moving frequently may lower it.”
To break the sedentary habit, start by noting how much time you spend sitting. Then look for ways to reduce that amount: Set the alarm on your phone to stand up and move for a few minutes every half hour; do stretches during commercials while watching television; pace the house during phone calls.
3. Drinking more than a glass of wine or two daily
Nothing wrong with having a glass, maybe two, of wine. Research suggests doing so may even help prevent diabetes. But go beyond the one-to-two drink mark and things suddenly change. “Within limits, alcohol is linked with a number of health benefits including reduced inflammation, decreased clots and decreased insulin resistance, which is linked to type 2 diabetes,” explains Maryniuk, who notes these gains are seen most in women and in non-Asian populations.
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To reap only the rewards of a daily tipple, follow the recommendation of the ADA and other health organizations and limit consumption to no more than one drink per day (for women) and a maximum of two per day (for men). While the links between drinking a moderate amount of alcohol and reducing your risk for diabetes are not definitive, “we do know that too many calories can lead to weight gain, and carrying excess weight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes,” Maryniuk says. “It’s easy for the plan to have ‘one drink a day for my health’ to turn into two drinks — plus cheese and crackers and chips and dip. Before you know it, the possible health benefits have been wiped away with the additional calories and likely weight gain.”
4. Skimping on shut-eye
It isn’t the occasional bout of insomnia that wreaks havoc here. It’s the night-after-night, chronic sleep deprivation that raises your risk for diabetes. How so? “With ongoing sleep loss, your hormone levels can get thrown out of balance,” Maryniuk say. As a result, “the body may release more stress hormones, such as cortisol, which push up blood sugar. In addition, less insulin is released after meals leading to higher blood glucose levels. These two factors over time increase blood glucose — and raise the risk of getting diabetes.”
That’s not all: Research shows that poor sleep (in terms of both quantity and quality) also increases your appetite and reduces your level of satiety, causing you to crave carbs and sweets in particular. Besides affecting insulin and blood sugar levels, that can lead to weight gain.
Add this to the long list of incentives to give up cigarettes for good: Smokers are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers, and heavy smokers have an even greater risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Experts can’t establish a direct cause-and-effect link, given how other risk factors — like stress, diet, levels of physical activity, and distribution of body fat — are hard to separate out. But a review of studies published in a 2019 issue of Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome suggests that cigarette smoking was the sole culprit in at least 25 million cases of diabetes worldwide.
Struggling to kick the habit? Talk to your doctor about what method makes sense for you. A 2020 report from the U.S. Surgeon General suggests that a combination of behavioral support, smoking cessation meds (like Chantix and Zyban) and nicotine replacement therapy (such as patches, lozenges, nasal spray and gum) may double your chances of quitting.
6. Eating processed foods
Highly processed foods — such as many cereals, deli meats and microwaveable dinners — have long been linked to an increased risk for things like cancer, depression and cardiovascular disease. Now, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that diabetes should be added to the list. Each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultraprocessed foods in participants’ diets was associated with a 15 percent higher risk of developing diabetes. At least part of the reason has to do with weight gain. Researchers found that those who consumed more processed foods tended to eat more calories overall, have lower quality diets and be more likely to be obese and inactive.
“Typically, more highly processed foods don’t provide the fullness that whole foods provide,” explains Kara Mitchell, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Duke Health and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina. “More highly processed foods tend to correlate with higher calorie intake. Too many calories leads to excess weight; excess weight leads to increased risk of insulin resistance.”
An easy way to spot an ultra-processed food: Check the list of ingredients. If you see a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, that’s a tip-off.