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7 Best Ways to Beat Diabetes

Leading diabetes researcher says basic lifestyle changes can prevent the blood sugar disorder

En español l The bad news first: More than 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes — a startling 10 percent jump in just two years — and an additional 86 million of us are at high risk for developing this chronic, debilitating disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Your risk for diabetes goes up as you get older and put on weight. The promising news: Research shows that a few basic lifestyle changes can prevent and, in some cases, reverse the disease, says George King, M.D., director of research at the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard Medical School and author of the forthcoming book The Diabetes Reset: Avoid It. Control It. Even Reverse It. A Doctor's Scientific Program. "Many people are not aware that you can improve your body's response to insulin and 'reset' your natural ability to metabolize the glucose in your blood," King says.

Here's what you need to do.

1. Cut the fat, up the fiber

The ideal diabetes prevention diet should consist of 15 percent fat, 15 percent protein and 70 percent carbohydrates, with the majority of those carbs coming from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, King says. "High fiber is the key, because fiber makes you feel full quicker and helps you absorb calories slower," King says. "That puts less stress on your beta cells" — the cells in your pancreas that make insulin.

2. Don't rely on supplements

New research finds that whole foods — think mainly fruits and vegetables — contain molecules that help activate the nutrients your body needs for weight and blood sugar control. "That's why food works and supplements don't," King says. "When you purify the vitamins out of the vegetables, you also eliminate the molecules that can activate the body's own machinery to produce a whole lot of antioxidants."

3. Get 6 to 8 hours of sleep nightly

In one multistudy analysis, researchers at the University of Warwick in England found that people who slept less than five or six hours a night were 28 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who slept six to eight hours. And even though we've been told you can't "catch up" on sleep on the weekend, adding more hours on those days was shown in another study to improve insulin sensitivity.

4. Calm yourself

"When you're stressed, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol go up, and inflammatory chemicals called cytokines increase," King says. "Both of these cause insulin resistance," which leads to diabetes. The ways in which people combat stress — by consuming high-fat and high-sugar foods — only compound the problem. Stress-reduction programs can help; they improve blood sugar control, too, recent studies find.

5. Stop being a weekend warrior

To keep diabetes at bay, physicians recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week. Just don't do this all at once. Exercise helps the body become more sensitive to insulin, but the effects of this insulin sensitivity last just 36 hours; ideally, you should be exercising every day or every other day — not once on the weekend for several hours.

6. Exercise in a cold gym

When the temp is at most 62 to 65 degrees, you have an even greater chance of generating and activating so-called brown fat, which keeps your organs warm and promotes lean muscle tissue and calorie burning. Preliminary research shows it may also reduce insulin resistance and improve glucose control.

7. Ask about new meds

The latest class of diabetes medications blocks the kidneys from reabsorbing glucose. So diabetes patients who take the drug end up getting rid of excess glucose through their urine. "Some doctors don't much like this because, philosophically, it means you've given up trying to control how much glucose you have in your body," King says. Plus, more glucose in your urine could mean more urinary tract infections. But, ultimately, these medications do rid the body of excess glucose — and it's the glucose that does the most harm.

Gabrielle DeGroot Redford is executive editor, health, for AARP Publications.