Can You Prevent Diabetes If It Runs In Your Family?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 37 million Americans have diabetes, and roughly 20% don't know they have the condition. Type 1 diabetes, which only occurs in 5-10% of people with diabetes, tends to appear in childhood and is not preventable, per the CDC. The much more common type 2 diabetes is tied to lifestyle — things like your weight, whether you exercise, and if you're a smoker — but genetics also plays a role, per the CDC.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), if your father or mother has type 1 diabetes, your chances of having it too are as high as one in 17. If both parents have type 1 diabetes, the chances can be as high as 25%. Since type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented, there's nothing you can do to avoid getting it — though the good news is that it can be well-managed with insulin and other medications. 

Having a family history of type 2 diabetes makes you more likely to have prediabetes and eventually develop diabetes, but this type of diabetes is also influenced by environmental factors. This means that while you might be more genetically predisposed to it (especially if close family members like parents and siblings also have diabetes), the lifestyle choices you make could help you delay or even stop diabetes from developing, according to the CDC

Lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes

According to the CDC, 96 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes, which means your blood sugar is not high enough to be considered diabetes yet, but it's still much higher than normal. The good news is that if you figure out you're one of the millions with prediabetes, you can start making lifestyle changes right away to avoid becoming a diabetic. While most people with prediabetes don't have any symptoms, the ADA recommends getting tested if you have a family history of diabetes. 

The two quickest changes you can make to prevent type 2 diabetes is to lose weight and start exercising. The CDC estimates that losing just 5-7% of your body weight can significantly reduce your risk of diabetes if you're overweight. You can do this by changing your food choices and opting for a better-balanced diet which includes plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. You can get ideas for healthy recipes on the American Diabetes Association's website, or by asking your doctor for meal plan suggestions. Talking to a dietitian or nutritionist is also a great idea, especially if you need help figuring out how to incorporate carbohydrates into a healthy eating plan. 

Additional lifestyle changes to consider

Regardless of family history, you can also lower your chances of developing diabetes if you stay active. The CDC says engaging in aerobic exercise just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is enough to make a difference. It doesn't have to be an intense workout either – brisk walking or swimming will do just fine. The Mayo Clinic goes a step further, recommending some resistance exercises like weightlifting or calisthenics two to three times per week and avoiding long periods of inactivity (i.e., getting up from your desk every 30 minutes for a quick walk). 

In addition to tuning up your diet and moving more, there are other lifestyle choices that also have a direct impact on your blood sugar. WebMD points out that your blood sugar goes up when you're under stress or drink alcohol. People with a lot of stress are also more likely to make poor food choices, skip workouts, drink more, and perhaps even smoke — all behaviors that can lead to the development of diabetes. 

Simple techniques to manage stress, like deep breathing (or even yoga) and making sure you keep your alcohol intake in check (especially if you're drinking sugary drinks like wine coolers), can go a long way. With a proper plan and a commitment to living a healthier life, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says nine out of 10 diabetes cases could be prevented.