With rates of type 2 diabetes rising in this country, public health officials have been emphasizing the importance of doing everything in your power to prevent it, recommending actions like eating fewer processed foods, exercising more, and losing excess weight.
But several new studies suggest other more surprising lifestyle factors that contribute to a diabetes risk: How much sleep you get, when you exercise, and meal habits, like whether you skip breakfast or eat steak for dinner.
Case in point: A study involving more than 100,000 people published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday found that those who added an average of 3.5 servings a week of red meat to their diet over a four-year period had a 48 percent higher diabetes risk compared to those who didn’t alter their red meat consumption. Those who decreased their intake had a 14 percent lower risk.
“It’s one of the first large studies to look at changes in red meat consumption and changes in the risk of diabetes,” said study co-author Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While she stressed that the study doesn’t prove that reducing your red meat intake will prevent diabetes, it’s likely that red meat is a “key factor” in diabetes risk.
Unlike cake, cookies, and bagels—which are known to cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels—red meat, which is low in carbohydrates, hasn’t been seen as a culprit to blame for the increase in diabetes rates. But it may do damage in other ways, Manson said, possibly due to its high iron content, nitrates found in deli meats, or excess of artery-clogging saturated fat, all of which may play a role in diabetes.
Tweaking red meat consumption and a few other health habits could have a big impact on lowering your diabetes risk or helping you better manage the condition if you already have it. Along with daily exercise and a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, here’s what research suggests you should do to minimize your likelihood of developing the condition.
1. Reduce red meat consumption. If you’re eating a four-ounce serving of beef or pork on a daily basis, cut back to two or three servings a week, Manson recommended. If you’re eating three servings a week, cut back to one.
2. Take a walk after eating. Walking for 15 minutes after dinner reduces the blood sugar surge that normally occurs after a big meal even better than a 45-minute bout of exercise earlier in the day, according to a June study published in Diabetes Care. “It’s nice to see that walking, even at a very moderate intensity for just 15 minutes after a meal, was associated with substantial improvements in glucose levels,” said Manson, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Though exercise at any time of the day remains crucial. The study, involving elderly, sedentary adults who didn’t have diabetes, found both the post-meal walk and the 45-minute morning workout led to better blood sugar levels over an entire day compared to days when the study participants didn’t do any form of activity.
“The most important thing is to find an exercise plan you can do long term,” Manson said. “If it’s not feasible to walk after your biggest meal of the day, do it at a different time.”
3. Catch up on lost sleep. Research suggests getting seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night is crucial for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, but most of us skimp on sleep over the course of the week. As it turns out, catching up on lost sleep during the weekend can help repair the damage by improving your cells’ sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.
That’s based on a study presented this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco. The researchers recruited 19 young men without diabetes who averaged six hours of sleep per night during the work week and had them sleep varying hours in a sleep lab on the weekend. On the night they were allowed to sleep 10 hours, the men had improved insulin sensitivity compared to when they were only allowed to sleep six hours. Bottom line: If you miss sleep during the week, sleep in on the weekends.
4. Don’t skip breakfast. Skipping breakfast temporarily induces insulin resistance—a precursor to diabetes—in obese women, according to new research from the University of Colorado. Having a temporary state of insulin resistance on a regular basis makes it more likely for someone to develop full-blown diabetes over time.
“For blood sugar control, studies generally find that it’s not optimal to be missing meals,” Manson said. “The body senses starvation and slows metabolism.” On the other hand, the type of breakast a person eats also matters. Whole-grain cereal or low-fat yogurt with fruit is an ideal breakfast. “If you’re eating bacon, eggs, and pancakes every morning,” she added, “I think it may be better to skip breakfast.”