Most people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are overweight. It’s the number one risk factor for type 2 diabetes. It’s the reason there’s a diabetes epidemic in the United States. About 80 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.

Excess weight, particularly in the belly area, makes it difficult for your body to respond to insulin. Insulin is a hormone your body makes that helps convert the glucose in food to energy. If you have diabetes and your body either resists insulin or doesn’t make enough of it, you have to get insulin from a shot or insulin pump. The amount of insulin your body needs is determined by what you eat, drink and how much exercise you get during the day. If your body doesn’t have the right amount of insulin, you’ll have too much or too little glucose in your blood. An imbalance of glucose can cause both short- and long-term, potentially dangerous health problems.

Lowering your glucose

People with type 2 diabetes can lower their blood glucose level by losing weight and increasing physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Losing weight also helps lower the risk for other health problems that especially affect people with diabetes, such as heart disease and stroke.

Being overweight isn’t the only risk factor for diabetes. Diabetes is diagnosed in thin people and many obese people never develop it. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) believes that obesity combined with a genetic predisposition may be necessary for type 2 diabetes to develop.

Type 2 diabetes can be controlled if managed carefully, but it is a progressive disease. It generally gets worse with age and often leads to complications if not managed carefully. It usually starts with insulin resistance, meaning the body becomes unable to respond to and use the insulin it produces. It can progress to insulin deficiency when the body doesn’t make enough insulin. If diabetes is diagnosed too late, weight loss won’t have a dramatic effect on improving blood glucose control. If your doctor diagnoses you with prediabetes, take it seriously. You only have one chance to keep from progressing to diabetes.

The ideal way to manage diabetes, or prevent it if you have prediabetes, is to reach and maintain an ideal weight and get plenty of exercise every day. That’s the ideal, but what’s realistic for you? Several long-range studies have shown that most people can lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight and keep it off. However, most people cannot realistically do more than that. Fortunately, the beneficial effects on blood glucose control begin with modest weight loss. Other studies have shown that eating and drinking less – reducing total energy intake – is more important for people with diabetes than the loss of weight.

By losing just 7 percent of body weight, adults can reduce their risk of developing diabetes by 60 percent. Adults over age 65 can reduce it by 70 percent. People with prediabetes can reduce their risk of progressing to type 2 diabetes by 12 percent for every two pounds they lose.

Skinny should not be the goal for diabetic management. Eating less and doing it every day should be your goal because that’s what works. Eating fewer calories and getting regular exercise improve blood glucose control, independent of body weight and weight loss.

What to eat?

There is no diabetic diet. People with diabetes should eat a variety of healthy foods that are low in fat, salt and sugar, and high in fiber, such as beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They can eat the same foods the family enjoys. Everyone benefits from the same healthy food choices that are recommended for diabetics.

The ADA recommends working with your doctor and dietitian to develop a diabetes meal plan. This is a guide to how much and what kinds of foods you can eat. A good meal plan will fit your schedule and eating habits. It will help you improve your blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, and keep your weight down. Whether you need to lose weight or stay where you are, your meal plan can help.

As you adjust your habits to eat less, it’s important that your choices provide the highest quality nutrients. Pick foods rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber over those that are processed or considered junk foods. Educate yourself about the calories, fats and nutritional value of the foods and beverages you’re consuming. Get in the habit of reading the Nutritional Facts label on food packages.

Most people are largely unaware of the amount of calories and the types of nutrients contained in the foods they eat. For example, having a coffee latte and a muffin for breakfast every day doesn’t seem outrageous. However, that totals about 1,600 calories – more calories than most women need in one day just to maintain their weight, much less lose weight. It leaves no room for the six ounces of healthy protein, five to eight servings of veggies and fruit, and two to four servings of whole grains that are the minimum basics of a healthy daily diet.

It takes a decrease of 3,500 calories a week to lose one pound of body fat. That means cutting out 500 calories per day.

Write it down

To help increase awareness of what you’re eating, and decide where to cut back, try keeping a food diary. Write down everything you eat and drink for several days or longer. If you’re honest about including everything, this can be an eye opener. It can also be very helpful in transitioning to a healthy diet.

There are several great internet tools and smartphone apps that can help you track your food intake and activity levels. Try myfitnesspal.com or supertracker.com. They calculate the number of calories and other nutrients in what you eat and, if you add your exercise, they will calculate when you’ll reach your weight goal. These are free but, like all tools, they only work if you use them every day.

What works

Don’t try to make multiple changes in your diet all at once. That will only set you up for failure. Start with one specific area at a time. For example, start eating fruit and whole grains for breakfast, or resolve to add two servings of fruit or veggies to lunch and dinner. Maybe you want to eliminate junk food from most days of the week. Achieving a healthy diet is a journey to find what works for you. It cannot be done overnight if you expect to stay with it for life.

Other effective strategies include:

  • Eat more vegetables except for starchy ones like potatoes, corn and peas. Avoid fried veggies or added sauces, butter or salt. Try keeping cut-up raw veggies in the refrigerator for an easy snack and quick side dish for lunches. Beans are a great way to get fiber, protein and a veggie serving. Work up to 8 servings (half a cup=1 serving) every day.
  • Choose whole-grain foods over white bread and sugary cereals. At least half the grains you eat should be whole grains.
  • Select lean protein: eat fish twice a week, chicken or turkey without the skin, and lean cuts of pork or beef (pork loin or sirloin). Try bean or soy products instead of meat one day a week.
  • Fresh fruit is best, but canned or frozen is good as long as there’s no added sugar. Look for fruit canned in its own juice rather than syrup.
  • Choose healthy oils or fats in small amounts. Extra virgin olive oil or canola oil are healthy and versatile in cooking. Avoid full-fat dairy products and creamy sauces.

The most important factor in weight loss is not the type of diet. There are no ideal or magic diets for people with diabetes. What makes the difference is eating healthy foods and sticking to a meal plan that works for you.

Tips for getting enough exercise is the next topic in our diabetes series.