Diabetes is a serious disease, but it doesn't have to rule your life. With the right combination of diet, exercise, and sometimes medication, diabetes management—or even reversal—is possible.
This blog post will help you understand the difference between reversal and cure and how lifestyle habits like diet and exercise can slow diabetes progression so you can live a full, healthy life.
Video: Can you reverse diabetes?
Can lifestyle changes reverse diabetes?
Using the word reverse in the context of diabetes is a bit tricky, depending on how you define disease reversal.
Reversing diabetes may sound like the same thing as curing it, but this isn't exactly accurate. A cure means that the condition is completely gone, and you never have to think about it again.
If you have diabetes, your body processes sugar differently, and this will likely always be the case and doesn't suddenly go away.
Lifestyle changes can help change the course of diabetes by stopping progression and related complications. It can even lead to remission. Remission means that your A1c is less than 6.5%—the cutoff for a diabetes diagnosis—for at least three months without the help of any medication.
In other words, reversal can mean that you stop diabetes in its tracks and minimize the negative impact on your life. Diabetes may always be a part of your world, but with lifestyle habits (and sometimes medication), it doesn't have to be the primary focus.
Lifestyle changes—sometimes in combination with medications— can help with diabetes reversal or remission by supporting healthy blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Long-term, this translates to a lower risk of heart disease, eye and kidney disease complications, and nerve damage.
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What does diabetes reversal mean to you?
It can be helpful to ask yourself what reversal means to you and why it's important. Do you want to stop taking medications? Prevent complications? Or maybe improve energy and how you feel each day?
All of these can be addressed by lifestyle changes. But depending on where you are in your health journey, successful changes can look a little different.
For example, working towards managing diabetes without medications is more likely if:
- You have been diagnosed with prediabetes, and your A1c is between 5.7 and 6.4%.
- You have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, your A1c is below 7%, and you are only taking one or two medications.
If your A1c is below 6.5% without medications, it's still critical to check your A1c at least annually.
Does that mean you won't see health benefits with lifestyle changes if you already take more medications or if your A1c is higher? No, lifestyle habits still matter a lot for reducing complications and decreasing your risk of heart disease, as you read above. You also may be able to reduce how many medications you take.
How can I manage my blood sugar levels with a diet?
Diet is foundational for managing blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates from sugar or starches in your diet break down during digestion and raise your blood sugar to give your cells energy.
If you have diabetes, your cells can't take the sugar out of the blood to use for energy as efficiently as they should, so your blood sugar remains high.
Your blood sugar rises more or less based on the type of carbohydrate:
- Refined carbs spike your blood sugar because your body breaks them down quickly. They include sugar, white flour, packaged treats and sweets, and baked goods.
- Complex carbs contain fiber and other nutrients that take longer to digest, so your blood sugar remains more stable. These include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
So choosing complex carbs instead of refined carbs is an important first step for managing blood sugar with diet.
Here are a few more nutrition tips for managing blood sugar levels:
- Choose fresh foods whenever possible while limiting packaged or processed foods.
- Eat more fiber. Fiber-rich foods, especially veggies, can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Try experimenting with a rainbow of different colors like spinach, bell pepper, cauliflower, carrots, and purple cabbage.
- Be smart (but not scared) about carbs. Keeping tabs on your carb intake is important when you have diabetes, but that doesn't mean you need to stop eating them. Your diabetes care team can help you learn the right amount of carb servings for your body.
- Limit concentrated sweets. Concentrated sweets can quickly spike your blood sugar. Keeping sodas, juice, candy, or cookies to special occasions can help you stay within your blood sugar targets.
- Consider using the plate method. The plate method is a tool that helps you visualize and build a blood sugar-balancing meal. Here's how to do it:
- Picture your plate divided into four quarters.
- Fill one-half (two quarters) with non-starchy veggies like greens, broccoli, or cauliflower.
- Fill one-quarter with lean protein—which also slows down blood sugar spikes—like fish, chicken, or tofu.
- Fill the last quarter with complex carbs like sweet potato, fruit, or quinoa for an added dose of fiber.
Can you manage blood sugar levels through exercise?
Exercise effectively lowers blood sugar by making your cells more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that helps move glucose out of your blood.
Small habits like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from the entrance to the grocery store, or taking a walk after meals in your neighborhood or at work (if it's safe to do so) all add up to make a difference.
Even walking up the stairs regularly instead of taking the elevator can add extra activity time in a week!
If you are new to exercise, or the thought of going to a gym just isn't your thing, keep in mind that all movement counts. The key is to find something you enjoy: dancing, walking, swimming, martial arts, cycling, and hiking are all great options.
You can work your way up to a goal of at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week, including two days of resistance training. Exercise intensity is different for each person and can change as your body gets used to exercising. Generally, moderate means your heart is pumping, but you can still continue a conversation without gasping for air.
Diabetes reversal puts you in control of your health
Type 2 Diabetes is a disease that can be managed and, in some cases, reversed through changes to diet and exercise. If you are new to making diet changes or aren't sure where to start, 9am.health can help you create a diabetes plan made just for you.
Your diabetes plan should be customized to your life
Sometimes it can feel like you're on your own when it comes to managing diabetes care. 9am.health changes all that. We bring an online diabetes care team right into your living room to help you create a personalized care plan, plus labs and testing supplies delivered right to your door. Learn more here.