It’s no secret that type 2 diabetes is a growing health risk, both across Canada and worldwide. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that adults with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19.

But while type 2 diabetes receives a lot of awareness, prediabetes gets considerably less attention.

What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes is a condition that happens when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal. But not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis.

Diabetes Canada estimates that diabetes and prediabetes affects at least 11 million Canadians. And some Canadians may not even know they have prediabetes.

Prediabetes doesn’t typically cause noticeable symptoms. But it does cause tissue damage that puts you at risk of diabetes-related complications later on. And meanwhile, it increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to the CDC.

Here are some of the risks prediabetes can pose to your health. Plus, find out what you can do to prevent and reverse it.

Prediabetes is about insulin resistance and a loss of blood-sugar control

Your body already has a system in place to keep your blood sugar (properly called blood glucose) within a healthy range. When your blood sugar rises – say, for example, after a carb-heavy meal – your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. It’s insulin that tells your cells to use that glucose for energy.

If you’re carrying excess weight and eating more than you need to, though, your metabolism ends up working less efficiently.

“In prediabetes, many of the metabolic systems of the body are overloaded,” says Dr. David Jenkins, the director of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. You end up taking glucose less readily into your muscles and other organs that need it after a meal. This is a condition called insulin resistance. Because of this, your pancreas releases more and more insulin to compensate.

When you’ve been “fasting” for several hours – for example, overnight – your liver puts out more glucose to fuel your body, and your pancreas in turn has to secrete more insulin. “This goes on until the pancreas can’t keep up as well,” Jenkins says. “So it ‘gives up the ghost’ and you start to see your blood-glucose level rising.”

What are the symptoms and risks of prediabetes?

The greatest risk associated with prediabetes is that your blood sugar levels will continue to rise and eventually meet the diagnostic criteria for type 2 diabetes. If that happens, you might:

  • feel fatigued,
  • experience unexplained weight gain
  • and notice you’re passing a larger-than-normal amount of urine (and feel excessively thirsty as a result).

But there are other adverse effects, too. Prediabetes mimics what’s going on in your body during type 2 diabetes, but on a smaller scale. Because of this, many of the side-effects linked to diabetes can also occur if you have prediabetes.

Over time, a prediabetic state can damage your blood vessels, which raises your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It can also damage your kidneys and eyesight, says Jenkins.

But fear not: Lifestyle changes can prevent (and reverse!) prediabetes. 

And even if you have prediabetes, the following lifestyle changes can also help you lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

How to prevent prediabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes

Fortunately, you don’t need lots of “health hacks” or pricey supplements to manage your risk of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.

Jenkins says that the basics of a healthy lifestyle are the best defence against the disease. Here’s what to do:

1. Maintain a healthy body weight.

Being overweight is the largest risk factor for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Research conducted at Leicester General Hospital in the United Kingdom found that even a small, sustained loss of just a few pounds is enough to lower your risk and may even reverse prediabetes.

2. Stay fit and active with exercise.

Regular physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight and builds muscle. This means you’ll have more muscle tissue to use up your blood glucose.

3. Eat fresh and healthy foods.

Load up on veggies. Basing your diet around plants and eating less meat may lower your risk, says Jenkins. And managing your calorie intake prevents weight gain that would increase your prediabetes risk.

4. Try to get enough sleep.

Sleep is essential for your overall health. There’s even some evidence that it might manage your prediabetes risk, too.

Stopping diabetes in its tracks

Concerned about prediabetes? Try the Canadian Diabetes Risk Questionnaire to get a sense of your personal risk. You can also speak to your doctor about your concerns.

By catching prediabetes early, you can act fast to lower or eliminate the chance of developing type 2 diabetes. You’ll also put yourself on track to stay healthy for life.

More on preventing and managing diabetes: