8 Everyday Habits of Young Adults That Increase Diabetes Risk

Why 20- and 30-somethings shouldn't ignore Diabetes Alert Day.

How often do you think about your diabetes risk? Does never sound about right?

Perhaps more of us should be since 86 million adults aged 20 years and older have prediabetes, a condition characterized by blood-sugar levels that are higher than normal but not high enough to be classified as full-blown type 2 diabetes.

“Without weight loss and moderate physical activity, 15 percent to 30 percent of people with prediabetes will develop type 2 diabetes within five years,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those people will join the more than 29 million other Americans with diabetes (that number is up three million from 2010).

Those numbers not quite holding the shock value necessary to raise some concern? Let’s get even more real then. Having diabetes: doubles your medical costs; raises your risk of other serious health complications like blindness, heart disease, and loss of feet and toes; and increases the likelihood of death by 50 percent.

And if that’s not enough to convince you it’s worth your time to ensure you’re preventing the disease, diabetes and its related complications accounted for $245 billion in total medical costs and lost work and wages in 2012.

The good news is that the majority of type 2 diabetes cases are completely preventable. The bad news it that people often don’t take lifestyle seriously enough until it’s too late.

Chances are if you’re a relatively healthy young adult, diabetes is not a top of mind issue. You’re still trying to navigate your career and hold a relationship for more than a year at this point, so yes, sometimes convenience food and happy hour trumps the gym and a homemade salad. But your lifestyle now (which you may seemingly be skidding by on without adverse affects) will catch up with you, increasing your risk of diabetes later in life.

You can prevent or delay the onset of the disease altogether by adjusting your eating habits, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. And you should be starting right now.

Mistakes You’re Making That Are Just Asking For Diabetes

Waiting too long between meals.

Your meeting runs late and you have a PowerPoint due so you work right through lunch to get it done, not even realizing it’s 3 p.m. until your stomach alerts you … and your cubicle mate. So you inhale a bag of chips from the vending machine to quiet the beast. If this is a common occurrence, your blood-sugar levels are going haywire, which sets you up for unhealthy weight gain. “When you go too long without eating and blood sugar dips, you tend to experience excessive hunger and cravings. When this happens, you crave simple sugars and refined carbohydrates,” said Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “If you allow this to happen over and over again and it leads to you indulging in simple sugars and refined carbs or eating excessive calories due to hunger, then you can increase your risk of diabetes in the future.” These types of foods increase your risk of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. “And even if you don’t reach for sugar or refined carbs, overeating in any capacity due to the excess hunger that occurs when blood sugar dips can lead to weight gain which in turn can increase insulin resistance,” added Palinski-Wade.

Or skipping them altogether.

Or maybe you don’t inhale a bag of chips or run to Chipotle to grab a burrito. Maybe you forget lunch altogether and just wait until you get home to have a meal. Or maybe it’s breakfast that gets the axe (those glorious extra 20 minutes of sleep are worth more to you than having time to cook up an egg). “Sure your life is hectic, but you have to make time to eat,” said Palinski-Wade. “Rushing out in the morning and skipping breakfast sets you up for a day of erratic blood sugar levels, excess hunger, cravings and most likely poor food choices. Instead, a quick and easy breakfast filled with whole grains and lean protein is your best choice.”

Indulging your sweet tooth.

We know, the doughnut tray at the morning meeting, candy dish in the office kitchen, and chocolate lava cake on the dessert menu are tempting. But if you could eliminate just one food from your diet to help boost your chances of living diabetes-free, it would be added sugars. “Naturally sweetened foods like fruit are fine to have, but processed foods packed full of added sugars are providing you with excess, empty calories, that can elevate blood sugar, increase insulin resistance, and pack on the pounds,” said Palinski-Wade.

Not using your gym membership.

Has anyone else been ignoring the monthly charge on their credit card bill? Actually using the gym will do more than just make the 100-dollar membership you locked yourself into in January worth it. “Being physically active helps to promote a healthy body weight, which by itself can lower diabetes risk,” said Palinski-Wade. “However, exercise helps your body to better utilize blood glucose and insulin. When you’re physically active, insulin resistance decreases, helping to prevent diabetes. Even if you’ve already been diagnosed with insulin resistance, increasing your level of daily activity can help to reverse it.” The recommendation for those at risk for diabetes is to be active for at least 150 minutes per week, and that includes a combination of aerobic training and resistance exercise. So pencil in a few gym sessions per week and you’re on your way to that summer body and a lower risk of diabetes.

Heading to happy hour on an empty stomach.

“Here’s the thing, alcohol initially can reduce blood sugar levels. But don’t get too excited,” said Palinski-Wade. “They can rebound higher a few hours later and if you consume alcohol with sugar mixers or bar food packed full of refined grains (think nachos and fries) you may be not only increasing your blood sugar but also your body weight.” As we can all attest to, alcohol tends to increase appetite and lower inhibitions, which is why three Moscow mules later you’re elbow deep in the fried sampler platter. “Before heading to happy hour, have a protein-rich snack to fill you up. Then, when you’re at the bar, order a light appetizer such as a shrimp cocktail or fresh mozzarella and tomato to munch on with your drink. Aim for a drink without any sugary mixers such as a glass of wine, light beer, or a mixed drink made with club soda,” suggested Palinski-Wade.

Relying on fast food.

Eating out on a regular basis doesn’t only cost you monetarily, but the excess sodium, fat, and calories add up fast. This “will increase your risk of weight gain and future diseases, like diabetes,” said Palinski-Wade. “Take one day a week to meal prep and make quick breakfast and lunch options in advance. Grabbing a cup of low-fat cottage cheese topped with frozen berries is faster than a drive through and much healthier as well!”

Not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Even if you’re hitting the gym four times a week and mindful of your calorie intake, not getting enough produce in your diet will leave you deficient in important nutrients that help stabilize blood sugar and promote a healthy environment in the body. “You still need to make sure your diet is rich in plant-based foods,” said Palinski-Wade. “Filling half your plate with produce at every meal is a great way to ensure you are taking in adequate nutrients and fiber daily.”

High intake of refined grains.

Whether you opt for the slice of multi-grain bread in the basket when dining out or stock your kitchen with whole wheat products at home, you may be surprised that your multi-grain options are really just refined carbohydrates in hiding, said Palinski-Wade. “Too many refined grains increase your risk of excess visceral fat (otherwise known as belly fat) which can increase insulin resistance along with diabetes and heart disease risk,” she added.”Read those labels and make sure your grains are 100-percent whole grain by looking for the word ‘whole’ in the first ingredient.”

A Diabetes-Fighting Shopping List

No, it’s not just your grandma on medication for her high blood sugar that needs to be altering her grocery list to help combat diabetes. “Here is a shopping list of must-have items for people in their 20’s and 30’s to build a diabetes-fighting kitchen,” said Palinski-Wade.

  • Fresh fruit
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables
  • Low-sodium canned vegetables
  • Canned fruit in juice
  • Low-sodium canned beans
  • Eggs
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts
  • Whole grain, lower carbohydrate breads and wraps (my top picks include Flatout Protein Up Carb Down Flatbread, Dave’s Killer Bread 100% Whole Grain Thin Slices, Food for Life Ezikel Sprouted Whole Grain Bread)
  • Whole grain, lower carbohydrate pastas (Banza Chickpea Pasta, Dreamfield’s Pasta
    Ancient Harvest Lentil & Quinoa Pasta, Barilla Protein Plus Pasta) or pasta alternatives (Explore Asian Soybean Spaghetti)
  • Steel cut oats (Quaker quick 3-Minute Steel Cut Oats take away the excuse that there’s no time to make these!)
  • Cinnamon
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Natural nut butters
  • Frozen wild salmon fillets
  • Edamame