The Sugar Solution

Is diabetes in your future? Learn your sugar score and take steps to avoid the “metabolic syndrome” menace.

By Jeff Csatari

You can’t sugarcoat the diabetes crisis in the United States: Nearly 29 million American adults have type- 2 diabetes, which is closely related to obesity. One in three adults have what’s known as “prediabetes,” the precursor to the deadly disease, and experts say 90 percent of those people don’t know they have it.

As a health journalist, I’ve been aware of prediabetes for over a decade, but I never thought to be checked myself (after all, I’ve always been active; I’m a runner and I lift weights regularly). 

So, you could imagine my shock when I finally had an HbA1C blood test and learned that my level hit 5.8. My doctor told me I had prediabetes!

Like most people, I was clueless.

HbA1C is short for hemoglobin A1C, a blood test that measures the percentage of your hemoglobin (a protein in your red blood cells) that is glycated, or coated with sugar. This test is more accurate than other diabetes tests because it shows your doctor a picture of your average blood sugar over time, about two to three months. “It is one of the most useful diagnostic tests and predictors of your potential longevity,” says Florence Comite, MD, an endocrinologist in New York City and author of the book Keep it Up about precision medicine.

And I had just failed it.

A prediabetes diagnosis means my blood sugar level is higher than it should be but not yet high enough to be classified as type-2 diabetes. But it’s one central condition in a cluster of health problems (including high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol) known as “metabolic syndrome,” that increases my risk of heart disease and full-blown diabetes. That is, unless I intervene with lifestyle changes or medication.

Having high levels of glucose in your blood means your body isn’t processing sugar properly. Untreated, elevated blood sugar can cause damage to your heart, brain, kidneys, eyesight, and muscles.

“Diabetes is a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes,” says Michael Pignone, MD, MPH, chief of the division of general internal medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which last year recommended screening for abnormal blood glucose in all overweight adults 40 to 70 years of age.

“If we can identify people at risk and help them make lifestyle changes, we may decrease their risk of progressing to diabetes and prevent the serious complications associated with this illness,” Dr. Pignone says. So, what can I do in response to my recent diagnosis? The same things you should be doing to prevent traversing the slippery slope of prediabetes: 

EAT MORE FIBER Get 20 to 35 grams a day. Most Americans eat half that amount. Because fiber isn’t broken down by the body, it doesn’t raise blood sugar and actually slows down the flow of glucose into the bloodstream. A 2015 study showed that people who ate 26 grams of fiber per day experienced an 18 percent reduction in diabetes risk compared to those who ate less than 19 grams a day. Good sources of dietary fiber are cereals, fruits, especially low-sugar fruits like berries, and vegetables.

SPRINKLE ON THE CINNAMON Research at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Center has demonstrated that cinnamon lowers both blood sugar and blood fat levels in people with type-2 diabetes. Sprinkle some on your yogurt, oatmeal and coffee every day.

LOSE A MODEST AMOUNT OF WEIGHT Carrying around extra body weight stresses the body and not only your heart but your entire metabolism. According to scientists at the American Diabetes Association, even losing just 7 percent of your body weight can cut your risk of developing diabetes by 60 percent.

ADD SOME MUSCLE Increasing your muscle mass is one of the best ways to lower insulin resistance. A recent study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that prediabetes risk dropped 12 percent for every 10 percent increase in volume of muscle people added. Shoot for three half-hour resistance training sessions a week and on the days between workouts, walk or do some other cardio activity to burn excess blood sugar. 

For tips on cutting added sugar from your diet, check out our 7 Ways to Sneak Away From Sugar.