There are currently more than 4.3 million people living with diabetes in the UK, and 90% of these have type 2. Diabetes UK also predicts that around 850,000 people are living with type 2 diabetes who are yet to be diagnosed.
Uncontrolled diabetes can come with some serious complications – such as eye problems, nerve damage, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. So it’s important that it doesn’t go unchecked and untreated.
While this can sound scary, it’s important to remember that diabetes is usually very manageable. It’s possible to live a long and healthy life if the condition is managed properly. There are also a number of things that can be done to prevent and even reverse its development.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at what type 2 diabetes is, the warning signs, and how you can reduce your risk.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a common condition that affects one in 10 people over 40 in the UK. Those who have it either don’t produce enough insulin or aren’t able to use it effectively.
Insulin is a hormone that’s made in the pancreas. It acts like a key to allow the carbohydrates that we get from food and drink (which are broken down into glucose) to move into our cells, where they can be used as energy or stored as fat.
When insulin isn’t being used by the body properly, blood sugar levels can continue to rise until they become too high (hyperglycemia). If blood sugar levels remain high for long periods, blood vessels can become damaged, which can lead to some serious health complications.
The areas of the body most affected by these complications are often your heart, eyes, feet, and kidneys.
Type 2 diabetes differs from type 1 diabetes because type 1 is usually caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body attacks itself by mistake – destroying the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Type 1 diabetes often runs in families and is usually diagnosed before the age of 40.
What are the warning signs of type 2 diabetes?
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes might not always make you feel unwell, which is why many people can live with it for many years without realising it.
However, if you have type 2 diabetes, you might find that you…
- Are urinating more frequently, especially at night
- Struggle to satisfy your thirst, or feel thirsty all the time
- Have a dry mouth
- Feel very tired
- Experience unexplained weight loss
- Experience blurred vision
- Take longer to heal when you cut yourself
- Get regular bouts of thrush and/or itching in your penis or vagina
- Experience nerve pain or numbness in your hands and feet
- Have dark patches on your armpits, neck, and groin areas (this is known as acanthosis nigricans and is caused by excess insulin in the blood)
- Feel irritable, anxious, or worried
It’s important to visit your GP if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, as the earlier diabetes is diagnosed and controlled, the lower your risk of developing long-term health complications will be.
Health complications of type 2 diabetes can include…
- Heart attack and stroke due to damaged blood vessels
- Foot problems due to poor circulation and nerve damage
- Kidney damage and/or disease
- Gum disease (more sugar in your blood means more sugar in your saliva)
- The development of certain cancers
- Sexual problems in men and women due to restricted blood flow to sexual organs
- Vision loss due to damage to blood vessels in the eyes
To learn more about the health complications of type 2 diabetes, it’s worth reading this page from Diabetes UK.
How is type 2 diabetes diagnosed?
Type 2 diabetes can easily be diagnosed with a blood or urine test, which can be administered at your GP surgery or local health centre. Alternatively, you could pay a fee to do a test at home using an online blood testing service, such as Thriva.
Once you send off your sample in the post, you should receive your results and a doctor’s report within 48 hours. If your blood sugar levels are raised, then you’ll be advised to discuss the results with your regular GP.
If you do have diabetes, your GP will talk to you about the best ways to control it, which usually involves medication, insulin therapy, and/or lifestyle changes.
You’ll also be required to monitor your blood sugar levels at home and attend regular checkups with a doctor or nurse, just to make sure that everything’s under control.
What is prediabetes?
If your blood test tells you that your blood sugar levels are high but not high enough for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, you might be told you have ‘prediabetes’ or ‘borderline diabetes’.
Prediabetes is an important stage in the development of diabetes, and by making some positive lifestyle choices, it’s possible to lower blood sugar levels and avoid it progressing to type 2 diabetes altogether.
To learn more about typical healthy blood sugar levels, have a read of this advice from the NHS.
However, it’s important to note that blood sugar levels can be interpreted differently based on a person’s individual circumstances. Your doctor will confirm what your blood sugar levels should be.
Could I be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
As well as looking out for warning signs of type 2 diabetes, it’s also important to know your risk, so you can be more proactive in taking control of your lifestyle.
According to Diabetes UK, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases if you…
- Are overweight or obese (particularly if you carry a lot of extra weight around your midsection). Obesity is thought to account for 80-85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Are white and over the age of 40, or Black African, African-Caribbean, or South Asian and over 25.
- Are a man between the ages of 35-54 (twice as likely as women).
- Have a parent, sister, brother, or child with diabetes (two-six times more likely).
- Have Black African, African-Caribbean, or South Asian heritage (two-four times more likely).
- Have a history of high blood pressure.
If you want to find out your individual risk of developing type 2 diabetes, you can do so in just a few minutes using this handy tool on the Diabetes UK website. You’ll need to know your height, weight, and waist size before you get started.
How can I reduce my risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
It’s estimated that there are 13.6 million people with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the UK today.
However, if you think or know that you’re at risk, there are some things you can do to reduce this. In fact, Diabetes UK has highlighted that more than half of all type 2 diabetes cases could have been prevented.
The main ways to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes are to…
1. Make positive changes to your diet
While it might seem obvious, eating a healthy, balanced diet is one of the best things you can do to maintain a healthy weight and improve your overall health.
Within this area, the following smaller steps can be particularly beneficial. This includes…
Reducing your intake of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates
High intake of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates can contribute to weight gain. Simple sugars are also rapidly turned into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly.
One of the best ways to reduce your intake of simple sugars and refined carbs is to limit the amount of processed foods in your diet (as these are often high in fat, sugar, and empty calories) and eat more natural and whole foods instead.
If you have a sweet tooth and want some tips on how to cut down your sugar intake, it’s worth reading this advice from the NHS.
Eating smaller, more frequent meals rather than one or two huge meals
Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help to regulate blood sugar levels.
A study of prediabetic men found that those who ate smaller portion sizes and adopted other healthy nutritional changes were 46% less likely to develop diabetes than men who made no changes to their eating habits.
For suggested portion sizes, check out this advice from The Association of UK Dietitians (BDA). Our article, 9 tips to prevent overeating and encourage portion control, also has some helpful pointers.
Drinking more water
Not only is water carbohydrate and calorie-free, but staying hydrated is also important for helping your body to get rid of excess glucose through urine. The NHS recommends drinking six to eight cups of fluid a day, with water being a top choice.
If you’re struggling to get your water intake up, you could consider investing in a water bottle with time markings as a reminder to drink.
Consider following a low-carb diet
Following a low-carb diet can be a good way to keep blood sugar levels low and stable because carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels more than any other food.
Check out our 8 tasty and filling low-carb meals ideas for some inspiration.
Eating more fibre
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advises that adults should eat 30g of fibre a day – yet most only eat 19g.
For tips on increasing your fibre intake, take a look at our article: 10 easy ways to add more fibre to your diet.
Getting enough vitamin D
Studies have shown that vitamin D can help to lower blood sugar levels and prevent type 2 diabetes.
Our article, What is vitamin D and why do we need it to stay healthy?, explains how to make sure you’re getting enough.
Cutting down on alcohol
Heavy drinking can interfere with blood sugar control and lead to weight gain, which, as we’ve said, can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes UK advises that the safest way to enjoy a drink and keep your risk of developing type 2 diabetes to a minimum is to stick to the NHS alcohol guidelines.
You’ll also find plenty more healthy diet tips on our website’s diet and nutrition section.
2. Be more active
Exercise can help to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes in multiple ways.
Not only can it help you to maintain a healthy weight, but it can also increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin so that it can use it more effectively (which helps to keep blood sugar levels stable).
Plus, studies have shown that as well as helping to prevent diabetes, staying active can also help to reverse it.
If you’d like to start taking small steps toward being more active, it’s worth reading our article: 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count. Or, for more ideas and inspiration, head over to our fitness and exercise section.
3. Get support to lose weight if you need it
The NHS recommends that you consider losing weight if your BMI is 25+, or if your waist size is over 94cm (37ins) for men or 80cm (31.5 ins) for women (regardless of your BMI).
However, while we all know that eating a healthy diet and moving more is good for us, sometimes it can be easier said than done – especially if you have a lot of weight to lose. But there’s nothing wrong with reaching out for extra support if you’re struggling to lose weight on your own.
One way you can reach out is by joining a weight loss support group like Slimming World. You can find your nearest group using this handy tool on the NHS website. Your GP can also be a source of support and will be able to advise you on the best way to lose weight based on your individual health needs.
You could also ask friends and family for help – perhaps by asking them to exercise with you and/or support you in making healthy meal choices. Or, if you’re looking for motivation, why not join one of our regular exercise classes over on Rest Less Events?
4. Quit smoking
Health experts believe that smoking may be responsible for 360,000 cases of type 2 diabetes in the UK, and is now considered an independent risk factor.
The risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke. For example, one large study showed that women who smoked more than 40 cigarettes a day were 74% more likely to develop diabetes, while men had a 45% increased risk.
The reason for this risk increase is that nicotine in cigarettes can make the body less sensitive to insulin, affecting how well it can use it. This causes both glucose and insulin levels to rise, which can develop into type 2 diabetes over time.
If you want to give up smoking but are concerned about how you might do this, it’s worth chatting with your GP, who’ll be able to advise you based on your individual circumstances.
It’s also worth reading these 10 self-help tips to stop smoking from the NHS. There are also some additional tips in our article: 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones.
Considering our risk of developing certain health conditions can be daunting. But it can also be an important first step in making some positive lifestyle changes and taking control of our health.
If you’re aware that you need to make lots of changes to your lifestyle and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can help to start small. Often, small changes can come together to make a big difference and will be more sustainable in the long run.
It’s also key to be kind to yourself when working on improving your health. Try not to be too hard on yourself about lifestyle choices you might have made in the past, and stay focused only on what you can do to improve your health – now and in the future.
And finally, remember to give yourself credit for any positive changes you make, however small they might seem.
For more information, support, and advice on everything diabetes-related, you can visit the Diabetes UK website. You might also like to read our article; 12 science-backed ways to lower (or regulate) blood sugar levels.
Have you lowered your risk of developing type 2 diabetes? Or are you planning to make some lifestyle changes to lower your risk? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.