More than 8% of the US population has diabetes, and one in three has prediabetes. According to the CDC, one in four affected is unaware of his or her condition, so reducing risk through lifestyle is critical for all of us. Our goal is to help you thrive, so today we’ll take a deep dive into the lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of diabetes.

There are a number of factors that lead to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. There’s heredity (which we can’t change), and there are the four major lifestyle factors:

  • What you’re eating
  • How you’re moving
  • How you’re sleeping
  • How you’re handling stress

By taking steps to improve these lifestyle factors, you can dramatically reduce your risk and increase your chances of living a long, diabetes-free life.

Obesity and Diabetes

Conventional wisdom tells us that keeping your weight in a healthy range is one way to reduce your risk of diabetes. However, it is possible to be thin with diabetes and obese without risk. So losing weight, while important, isn’t always the key to prevention.

Where you’re holding weight is actually a much bigger indicator of risk than how much you weigh. Middle body weight (extra fat around the midsection) is a much greater cause for alarm than extra weight in thighs and legs, for example. How you carry your weight is (again) related to both genetics and lifestyle.

Let’s look at the four lifestyle factors that can to help you take control of your health — starting today.

1. Diet: Steady Wins the Race

In every healthy eating system (especially those designed for weight loss), whether it’s paleo, vegetarianism, raw food, or even USDA’s ChooseMyPlate, an unstated goal is to keep blood sugar steady.

Without going too far down the physiology rabbit hole, when blood sugar is steady, so are your energy and hunger levels. Sugary foods and drinks create surges in blood sugar, followed by steep drops. Your pancreas works overtime producing insulin. Once insulin has flooded the system, the crash comes, usually leading to carbohydrate cravings, and thus the cycle continues.

Those dramatic peaks and valleys not only feel terrible, but they can damage cell walls, causing insulin resistance, which can eventually lead to middle-body weight gain and diabetes.

What Does That Mean to You?

Here are a few practical ways to begin shifting toward a healthy, sustainable diet:

  • Replace white foods with colorful veggies. White foods like pasta, potatoes, bread, and white rice all contribute to blood sugar spikes. We aren’t asking you to go low-carb — colorful, delicious starches can replace these staples and leave you feeling full and satisfied (think winter squash and root vegetables). And in case you were wondering, cauliflower doesn’t count as a white food — we love cauliflower!
  • Replace sodas and juice with water and unsweetened herbal tea. Health advocates attribute the surge in obesity and diabetes rates to a drastic increase in soda consumption. Drinking your sugar (regardless of the source) is never a good idea. Water is the best source of hydration.
  • Replace processed foods with whole foods. We’ll use Michael Pollan’s advice from Food Rules to illustrate this one: “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” The same goes for meat — choose meats that are as unadulterated as possible, avoiding lunch meats, sausage, and other processed meats to control sodium intake.
  • Time your meals and snacks wisely. In order to avoid drastic peaks and valleys in blood sugar, plan to have a protein-rich snack every 3 to 4 hours.

2. Movement: Get Going

There are so many good reasons to get active: stronger bones, improved circulation and heart health, stress relief, weight maintenance, and the list goes on. But you might not be aware that physical activity actually lowers blood glucose and increases insulin sensitivity. The American Diabetes Association advises a combination of aerobic and strength training for the best results.

How to get started

Walking is a simple, free aerobic activity – no gym required. If you’re mostly sedentary, a 1o minute walk might seem like a lot. Start with five, and increase by just one minute every day until you’re up to 20. Then put a little pep in your step and keep going until you get to 30. We recommend making it fun by finding a walking buddy and getting yourself a step tracker to keep you motivated. Once you hit your stride, shoot for 10,000 steps a day to maintain an active lifestyle.

When it comes to resistance training, body weight resistance is a great starting point. You could also try resistance band exercises once you gain some level of comfort in the movements.

Remember, strength doesn’t have to mean bulk – don’t be afraid to lift weights. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get bulky and much more likely that you’ll feel stronger, healthier, and more confident instead. (If you’ve never done this before, we recommend that you talk to your doctor first and start with a trainer to insure proper technique and avoid injury.)

3. Sleep More

While food and fitness are likely obvious lifestyle factors for reducing diabetes risk, sleep might not be on your radar yet. Have you ever noticed that you eat more after a poor night’s sleep? What about extra strong cravings for carbs or sweets?

A 2007 study draws a direct connection between sleep loss and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Researchers cite factors such as increased hunger and disrupted glucose metabolism, cortisol production, and energy expenditure. Based on these findings, we’re placing sleep on the list of important lifestyle factors to consider. Aim for 8 hours a night, and don’t settle for less than 7.

4. Stress Less

Stress comes in two forms: physical and emotional. In both cases, stress exacerbates risk for diabetes. Physical stress (also known as oxidative stress) results from negative inputs into the body (think processed junk food, air pollution, or exposure to chemicals). We combat this type of stress by following just about all of the recommendations we’ve given so far, especially the diet recommendations. Colorful vegetables and fruit are rich in antioxidants.

Tactics for reducing emotional stress can include meditation, physical activity, nature walks, talk therapy, laughing with a friend, yoga, prayer, a warm bath, aromatherapy, or any form of relaxation.

Making time for stress relief is just as important as making time for exercise, so put it on your calendar. Much like we suggested with walking, starting with just 5 minutes a day of quiet reflection can have a big impact on reducing your risk for diabetes.

You Decide How to Start

Changing everything at once can feel daunting. We understand that we’ve just thrown a lot of information at you, and that asking you to do a major overhaul is asking a lot. Our goal is to be as helpful as possible without overwhelming you, so we encourage you to set a goal for yourself around a single action at a time. Pick an element from one of the four lifestyle categories we’ve outlined that you feel confident you can tackle, and get going this week. Then once you’re ready, come back to take on the next challenge. Remember, steady wins the race.