Growing up in Mississippi, Herman L. Kemp, Jr. dined on fried chicken and biscuits for breakfast, sometimes with a side of macaroni and cheese. These eating habits continued into adulthood, where it wasn’t unusual for him to regularly splurge on a buffet-style breakfast, then hit another buffet for lunch or dinner. “I was living to eat, not eating to live,” Kemp says now.
By the time he was 34 years old, Kemp had ballooned to 454 pounds and his blood pressure was 200 over 192. A blood test found that his blood-glucose level was higher than 100 milligrams per deciliter—meaning he was prediabetic. “My doctor spoke some Godly things to me that day,” Kemp says. “If I continued on the way I was going, sooner or later, he said, he would be visiting me in the emergency room after I’d suffered a stroke or a massive heart attack.”
The message was clear: If he didn’t make drastic changes soon, he would be on the fast track to type 2 diabetes—just like his mother before him.
Kemp wasn’t alone in his predicament. According to the American Diabetes Association, 57 million Americans have pre-diabetes, meaning their blood sugar is above normal and they’re at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder that can lead to heart attack, stroke, amputation, and kidney failure, among other complications.
But here is the good news: Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that type 2 diabetes—the most common kind of diabetes—is 100 percent preventable. “It’s absolutely related to diet and lifestyle,” says Holly Lucille ND, RN, a West Hollywood, California-based naturopathic physician. “In fact, there have been clinical studies showing that diet alone can often be effective as a sole factor in treating and reversing diabetes.”
There’s no better time than now— whether you’re pre-diabetic or not—to get cracking on preventing the onset type 2 diabetes.
There are two forms of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. With type 1, the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin, a hormone that helps the body’s cells absorb glucose and use it as fuel. Type 1 is related to genetics; generally develops early in life; and, unfortunately, cannot be prevented. Type 2, on the other hand, is the result of lifestyle, not genetics, and involves the cells becoming resistant to insulin, thereby allowing unused glucose to accumulate in the bloodstream. While necessary for proper cell function, glucose left circulating in your body can wreak havoc on your heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys.
It’s not yet fully understood why cells would become resistant to insulin, though excess weight and physical inactivity are major parts of the equation. Obesity has been directly linked to type 2 diabetes, possibly because fat cells appear to be more resistant to insulin than muscle cells.
That’s why recalibrating your diet is key in preventing type 2 diabetes, says Richard Bergenstal, MD, president of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association. What’s more, says Bergenstal, “If you have extra weight on for too long, your pancreas starts to wear out. Now you don’t just have insulin resistance, you also have insulin deficiency, which means you make less insulin than you need to keep your blood sugar normal.”
To avoid that predicament, Bergenstal recommends cutting out 500 calories per day through a combination of diet and exercise. For example, walking a couple of miles and skipping that after-dinner bowl of ice cream should suffice. Stick to it, and you’ll lose a pound per week, says Bergenstal—a healthy, attainable goal.
Along with cutting back on food intake, you should also rethink what you’re eating, says Lucille. If you have a high-carb diet, that means your body is being so flooded with dietary glucose and insulin that your cells become desensitized to it, she says.
She recommends staying away from processed, high-carb, and sugary foods and going easy on fruit juices and dairy products because they are high in sugar and lead to glucose rushes. Instead, opt for smaller meals throughout the day packed with dietary fiber, since fiber has been shown to slow the release of dietary glucose and increases tissue sensitivity to insulin. Think of it like treating your body to a slow, steady stream of glucose, rather than a direct, sugary blast a few times daily.
Walk it Off
You don’t need to start running marathons to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes, says Bergenstal. A National Institutes of Health–funded study found that people at high risk of type 2 diabetes who walked 30 minutes per day, five days per week, lost seven percent of their body weight and reduced their chance of diabetes by a whopping 58 percent.
“You don’t have to do something fancy. If you can go for a walk five times a week, you can do this,” says Bergenstal. “The results have really started to reshape the landscape of prevention.” YMCAs, churches, companies, and community centers are developing low-impact exercise programs based on the study and getting similar results. Of course, you don’t need to sign up for an official curriculum; just grab your music player, pop in your headphones, and head out for a stroll.
Mind Your Mind
Along with eating healthy and going for walks, watch your anxiety level. When you’re stressed, your body releases a cocktail of hormones that increases insulin resistance and restricts the functioning of your pancreas, says Bergenstal. “We haven’t proven that stress is one of the causes of diabetes, but if you are going down that path, it aggravates it,” he says. Depression has a toll, too. As Bergenstal reports, “People with diabetes have twice the rate of depression and vice versa. They are so interrelated.”
To curb stress and depression, find your favorite pick-me-up. Maybe it’s meditation or yoga; maybe it’s going for a nature walk or taking a nice, long bath. “Find out where you can recharge and unburden,” says Lucille. “It’s like working on an unplugged laptop—every so often you have to stop and recharge it.”
Sending a Message
Do all these steps actually work? Can people stick to it long enough to avoid type 2 diabetes? They sure can; look at Herman L. Kemp, Jr.
In 2005, with his doctor’s sobering words ringing in his ears, Kemp embarked on a 1,500 calories-a-day meal plan. For breakfast, he ate whole-wheat cereal and toast; for lunch, sandwiches and small salads; and for dinner, grilled chicken, brown rice, and cooked veggies.
After six weeks of struggling with the transition, he began to notice a difference. He needed less food to feel satisfied and stopped hankering for unhealthy alternatives. Within six months, Kemp had lost nearly 70 pounds; at the 18-month mark, he dropped roughly 200 pounds. In the ensuing three years, he’s kept it off.
Not only is Kemp no longer pre-diabetic, but he also has a whole new life. While he used to sit in his car for half an hour, collecting energy before attempting to walk across the parking lot to work, he now runs eight to 10 miles per day. His success story has inspired others in his community—including his father-in-law, who has type 2 diabetes and recently lost 40 pounds with diet and exercise.
“The threat of type 2 diabetes made me realize I was facing a serious situation,” says Kemp. “A man I played football with in college passed away a few months ago because of diabetes. But now I’m sending a strong message that I am doing the right thing, I am showing others they can either live with the threat of diabetes, or they can get healthy.”