According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 37 million Americans are living with diabetes — a disease that affects how your body turns food into energy. But what's even more shocking is the amount of people living with prediabetes — a condition that can develop into full-blown diabetes without treatment. According to the CDC, there are approximately 96 million American adults living with prediabetes — and more than 80% of them don't even know they have it!
With numbers like that, it's no wonder why diabetes (and prediabetes) education is so important. As the number of Americans living with diabetes grows, so does the need to understand the different types of diabetic conditions — especially prediabetes — and how to prevent symptoms from worsening.
What Is Diabetes?
The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen that aids in the digestion process by producing enzymes and hormones that break down food into fuel for your body. Most of the food you eat is broken down into glucose (sugar) and released into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar rises, it signals the pancreas to produce insulin — the hormone responsible for regulating the body's blood sugar levels. Diabetes is a condition where a person's blood sugar level is too high, either because their body stops responding to insulin or it doesn't produce enough on its own. Over time, this can lead to serious health issues, such as kidney disease, heart disease, vision loss and increased risk of stroke.
Before we get to the difference between diabetes and prediabetes, it's important to have a basic understanding of the three types of diabetic conditions: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.
- Type 1 Diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body doesn't produce insulin. This condition only makes up about 5% of all diabetes diagnoses and is typically diagnosed in children and young adults (which is why it's sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes). Currently, experts do not know how to prevent this condition. Treatment for type 1 diabetes requires insulin therapy, which involves monitoring one's blood sugar levels and regularly administering insulin as needed.
- Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is an increasingly common condition that is caused by a combination of insulin resistance (when the body stops reacting to insulin) and insulin deficiency (when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin). Type 2 diabetes accounts for more than 90% of all diabetes diagnoses and normally occurs due to a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors. You can develop type 2 diabetes at any age, but you are at higher risk if you are older, inactive, overweight or if you have a family history of diabetes. Certain ethnic groups — including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders — are also at a higher risk.
- Gestational Diabetes. This is a type of diabetes that some women (approximately 9%, according to the CDC) develop during pregnancy. This is usually a temporary condition which goes away after birth, however, even if the mother's blood sugar levels go down after birth, she is still at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. While any pregnant person can develop gestational diabetes, you are at greater risk if you are overweight, have a family history of type 2 diabetes or have certain conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome. Learn more about gestational diabetes and the personalized care available through El Camino Health.
What Is Prediabetes?
Now that you understand the basics of diabetes, it's time to touch on prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition where your blood sugar level is elevated, but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Without meaningful lifestyle changes, those with prediabetes are at a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes within the next five years. Even with just prediabetes, high blood sugar levels can cause long-term damage to your heart, kidney and blood vessels.
Since prediabetes typically doesn't produce any noticeable symptoms, it's crucial to get screened early via a simple blood test. Remember, more than 8 out of 10 Americans with prediabetes don't know they have the condition! By identifying the disease early, you can control or even reverse the effects of prediabetes.
Tips for Managing Prediabetes
If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes, there's still some good news. With proper treatment and lifestyle changes, you can stop prediabetes from progressing to type 2 diabetes. Cut your risk of developing diabetes in half by taking these healthy steps:
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet. Even if you don't have a family history of diabetes, a poor diet can greatly increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In the prediabetes stage, dietary modification (in combination with other lifestyle changes) can often cause your blood sugar to return to normal levels. The best way to prevent diabetes is to avoid overeating, incorporate healthier foods into your diet (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products) and limit less healthy options (processed, salty and sugary foods).
- Exercise regularly. In combination with a healthy diet, regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to get your blood sugar levels under control. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise 5-7 days a week to effectively prevent type 2 diabetes. Since blood sugars tend to rise after you eat, try getting in the habit of going on a walk after your meals — this can heighten insulin's effect on your body and prevent you from staying in a prolonged state of hyperglycemia.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight range for your body. If you are overweight, losing under 10% of your body weight can improve your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol — helping reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
If you are concerned about diabetes or prediabetes, talk to your doctor about your risk factors. If you are in fact diagnosed with diabetes, the diabetes education specialists at El Camino Health can help you better understand and manage the disease.
This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.