With around 280 Australians developing diabetes every day, and over 100,000 Australians having developed the condition in the past year, diabetes is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia. In fact, it is reaching epidemic proportions. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But what you should know is that many cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented with lifestyle changes. It’s important to understand the risk factors and know what you can do to make a difference.


First, let’s start with the basics: there are two main types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2. Most of the time when you hear news reports saying that diabetes is on the rise, they’re referring to type 2, although type 1 is on the rise, too, but not to the extent of type 2. So, how are they different?


When it comes to type 1 diabetes, it’s your immune system (and not your lifestyle) that will determine whether or not you develop the disease. Previously known as juvenile-onset diabetes, it’s most commonly diagnosed in people under the age of 25. A person who is genetically predisposed to type 1 diabetes may develop the disease when they are exposed to an environmental factor of some kind, such as a virus.

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the beta cells that are responsible for producing insulin in the pancreas. Once a person is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, they need to inject themselves with insulin several times a day as their body is no longer capable of producing it.  Insulin is an essential hormone that enables the body to use carbohydrate effectively for energy, but is also involved in protein and fat metabolism. The bottom line is that we need insulin to survive.


By far the most common form of diabetes is type 2, which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes. It is no longer called this as sadly diagnosis is occurring at younger and younger ages, including a growing number of children. Rather than losing the ability to make insulin (like type 1), type 2 diabetes is characterised by insulin resistance. Cells around the body become less receptive to insulin and so the pancreas pumps out more insulin in an attempt to keep blood glucose levels under control. Eventually, the pancreatic cells may become exhausted and insulin levels may fall.

Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. That means many people with type 2 can manage their disease for a while by investing in positive lifestyle changes – some forever. However, over time, the disease may progress such that tablets or insulin injections are required to help manage the disease.

Genetics certainly play a strong role when talking about your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but modifiable lifestyle risk factors also play a major role in the development of the disease. Approximately 2 million Australians have what’s called pre-diabetes and it’s estimated that 58% of those can avoid progression to the full blown disease through dietary and lifestyle change. Wow! That’s worth making some changes for.

“The good news is that a majority of people with pre-diabetes can prevent the progression to type 2 diabetes through dietary and lifestyle changes.”



The same risk factors put you at risk for pre-diabetes as for type-2 diabetes. They include:

·       Having a family history of type 2 diabetes
·       Being overweight or obese
·       Being inactive
·       Having high blood pressure or a history of cardiovascular disease
·       Being a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
·       Smoking
·       Having had gestational diabetes during a pregnancy
·       Being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander

If you have any of these risk factors you should talk to your GP about being tested. Lifestyle changes have a dramatic affect on the progression of the disease, including reducing your risk of diabetic complications, and may help you to avoid it altogether

Doing something about those risk factors that you can change such as controlling your weight, staying active, and maintaining a healthy diet is invaluable when it comes to prevention and management of type 2 diabetes.



1)  Quit smoking – this will also reduce your risk of numerous other diseases. We know it’s not easily done, but it is the number one most important thing you can do for your body and your health.

2)  Maintain a healthy weight. If you are very overweight losing as little as 5% of your body weight makes a measurable impact on your health and reduces your risk.

3)  Enjoy a healthy diet. Ultimately this means more natural, wholesome, nutrient-dense foods that help to fill you up, while minimising your intake of highly processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are all too easy to overeat.

4)  Exercise just thirty minutes every day. Sedentary living is an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes. This means even if you are lean, being too sedentary increases your risk. Find a time of the day that you can stick with, even if it means getting up thirty minutes earlier and heading out for a walk. Once you get used to it, you will wonder how you ever lived without that special time just for you.

5)  Educate yourself. Talk to your GP about your blood pressure and other risk factors.  Discuss whether or not you need a blood test to determine if you’re at risk.


Author: Joanna McMillan has a PhD in Nutritional Science, is one of Australia’s best-known health experts and founder of Get Lean. For more articles like this, check out her website here.

If you have any questions or comments please leave our dietitians a message below.