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How to Prevent or Lessen Your Risk of Developing Diabetes If It Runs in Your Family

Madison Holt, MS, RDN, LD

Published in Health & Wellness

9 min read

November 11, 2021
three generation of a family walking and laughing
three generation of a family walking and laughing

Have you ever wondered how likely you are to develop diabetes if your parent[s] have it? Unfortunately, the answer is more likely than if they didn’t. The genetic link puts you more at risk, based not just on your parents but also on any family member that has the condition. Your risk of developing it can be higher or lower depending on how many family members have it and whether they have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

If diabetes runs in your family, there’s also a good chance that some may have pre-diabetes and be unaware of it. According to the CDC, approximately 88 million people in the United States have pre-diabetes but don’t know it. This can make it more difficult to judge your likelihood of developing the condition. Still, it’s always a good idea to check your family health history so you can be as prepared as possible. The good news is that whether it's because of genetics or other factors, there are ways to lower the risk! You can develop a healthier lifestyle and form healthy habits, minimizing your chances of developing diabetes even if you have inherited the genes for the condition.

If A Parent Has Diabetes, Does That Mean You Are Guaranteed to Develop It?

a kid, an adult and an older person

It can be challenging to determine your likelihood of inheriting a genetic disease like diabetes. If both your parents have diabetes, your chances can be as high as one in four. But just because your family carries the genes for diabetes doesn’t necessarily mean that you will develop it. Your lifestyle choices and eating habits may help prevent those changes from happening. Diet, exercise, and weight management can prevent type 2 diabetes and manage type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Genetics may put you at risk, but you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to how much you can do to prevent and manage it. This means that you can choose to monitor your health and form healthy habits to avoid it as much as possible. Or you can ignore it and unknowingly continue with food and lifestyle choices that increase your risk of developing it. Using a CGM monitor is a helpful way to track and monitor your glucose levels to prevent diabetes, even if you have a genetic risk.

How to Avoid Developing Hereditary Diabetes 

a person holding an icon of a family

There is no singular gene to examine that determines your likelihood of developing diabetes. And thousands of genes can either prevent or cause both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. This can make it very challenging to determine your actual risk when weighing your genetics and habits against your family history. While this may all feel a little overwhelming, don’t worry! There are a few methods you can try to decrease your risks. Here are a few ways to lower your risk of developing diabetes:

Regular Annual Checkups at All Ages

a doctor showing a glucose monitor to a patient

Do you have a family history of diabetes or pre-diabetes? Have you had gestational diabetes, or are you older than 45? If so, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends a yearly test, which you can get during your annual physical. If your family has a history of diabetes, it’s essential to let your doctor know so they can schedule checkups. Even if you’re relatively healthy and haven’t experienced any symptoms so far, it’s important to maintain regular testing as a preventive measure.

Your yearly appointment will include general welfare questions and specific tests and exams to monitor your health, diet, and risk levels. Your doctor will be able to convert these test results into helpful advice regarding your diet, physical activity, and supplement needs. It’s also a good idea to track your blood glucose levels to monitor things like hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.

Commit to Regular Exercise

three people stretching

If you’re at risk of developing diabetes or have already been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes, exercise is a good way to stay healthy. It’s also a good way to prevent developing or aggravating symptoms of diabetes. According to Harvard Health, exercise can help you in myriad ways. These range from controlling your weight and lowering blood pressure, harmful LDL cholesterol, and anxiety to improving general wellbeing, strengthening your muscles and bones, and raising healthy HDL cholesterol. And for people with diabetes, a little physical activity can also help lower blood glucose levels, boost insulin sensitivity and counter insulin resistance.

Trying to find the perfect time to exercise? The ideal time can vary from person to person, but it may be a good idea to try some activity around one to three hours after eating a light meal. Remember to interrupt long periods of sitting (like being at your desk for a long stretch) with light activity every 30 minutes or so. If you have diabetes or are at risk of developing it, consider two to three hours of exercise a week, spread over four to five days. Remember, running, biking, swimming, dancing, and even a brisk walk counts as exercising!

Eat a Healthy Diet

a family of four having breakfast

No surprises here, right? A healthy diet may sound like a given when you’re reading about disease prevention. But because diabetes centers around blood sugar levels, your diet can often play a significant role when you’re attempting to prevent the occurrence of diabetes. One important thing to remember is that no matter how much you think this will help: the timing of your meals matters. Some people may do better with smaller, more frequent meals, while others may benefit from intermittent fasting. In general, it's important to avoid eating later in the evening when your glycemic response to foods tends to be higher and less optimal.

What does a healthy diet look like to someone at risk for diabetes or with pre-diabetes? Here’s a starter guide:

  • Limit the amount of sugar you consume, especially in the form of sugary drinks, candy, and desserts.
  • Choose whole food carbohydrates over processed grains and snacks.
  • Include some amount of healthy fats in every meal.
  • Prioritize protein when you’re plating or planning your meals.

There’s no one way to eat, and remember that everyone has different responses to different foods. But here’s an interesting recommendation from one our dietitians at Nutrisense, Carlee Hayes:

  • Focus on eating non-starchy vegetables.
  • Eat the protein (poultry, fish, meat, or plant-based protein) from your meal first. 
  • Eat a portion of whole food carbohydrates (think legumes and starchy vegetables) last. 

Avoid Smoking

Smokers are roughly 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers, and heavy smokers have an even higher risk. Remember that cutting down or quitting altogether has many health benefits beyond preventing diabetes, so there’s no time like the present to do so.

Get Enough Vitamin D and Sunlight

Vitamin D deficiencies have links to type 2 diabetes, so don’t forget to get some sun! Vitamin D also has associations with insulin deficiency and delayed insulin release. Make sure to get out and enjoy some sunlight for a little while every day. If you’re at risk of developing diabetes, your doctor may recommend testing your vitamin D levels and depending on the results, may suggest adding a vitamin D supplement into your diet.

Minimize Unnecessary or Excessive Stress

two people talking and holding each other's hands

Research has shown that stress levels may be linked to the development of type 2 diabetes. This is because stress hormones may prevent insulin-producing cells from working the way that they should. It can result in a reduction of insulin sensitivity and higher glucose levels.

Additionally, high stress can increase cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, which can act as a double-edged sword. While it can be difficult to control every stressor, you can manage how you feel when you encounter them. Speak with a family member, ask a professional for help or try to practice stress-relieving activities, such as meditation or breath work, if you’re prone to experiencing high levels of stress.

Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure

No matter how old you are, it’s a good idea to keep your blood pressure level under 120/80 mmHg. Ideal blood pressure levels vary by age but keeping it under 120/80 is a good starting point. Once you begin to near that level, your risk for developing diabetes can increase.

Monitor Your Weight and Avoid Activities Linked to Weight Gain

Being overweight can increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Although the BMI is an imperfect measurement, the CDC usually defines being overweight as having a BMI of 25 or higher. So don’t go by your waistline alone. Even if you’re not in the overweight category, but you’ve put on a few extra pounds, remember that losing weight can make it easier to manage blood glucose. Losing weight can also help make engaging in physical activity easier and keep you more active, all of which can help prevent diabetes. If your children are at risk and overweight, it can be helpful to encourage them to spend time playing outside or learning a new sport.

Avoid Other Lifestyle Factors That Increase Your Risk of Diabetes

bills and small boards with words "Diabetes risk factors", "family history", "diet", "age!

It can be tough managing just one of the methods here, let alone all of them. But if you start slow, you can incorporate them into a routine that will make it easier for you to do so. Once you’ve managed to do that, you may be able to put yourself in a lower risk category for developing diabetes, even if there’s a genetic risk.

In addition to diet, exercise, and the other factors we have covered, consider things like what you do for work. For example, if you sit at a desk for most of your day, try to get up and stretch regularly. Whatever you do, it’s likely to be sedentary, so consider developing an active hobby after work or getting out more often on the weekend. Incorporating a little activity into your routine can help optimize your overall health too!

Find Some Support

a person talking to a dietitian

It can feel overwhelming when you’re trying to manage or prevent something like diabetes by yourself. But you don’t have to do it alone. From in-person support groups to online tools available to help with preventive measures, there are many options out there, including this blog! It’s also a good idea to try using a CGM, and to get in touch with a dietitian if you need help or advice with anything along the way.

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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.