About a third of adults in the U.S. have prediabetes, and most don't know it. The condition ups the risk of type 2 diabetes by 50%, but these 6 strategies can help get you to a healthier place.
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What is prediabetes? This condition is characterized by elevated blood sugar that is still below the type 2 diabetes range. "Some people hear 'prediabetes' and they think 'pre-problem,' but that's not the case," says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide (buy it on amazon for $9.99).

Not sure if you're at risk? Take this quiz to help answer Do I Have Prediabetes?

Having the disorder, she says, means that you already have insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that ferries the sugar from your blood (aka blood glucose) into the rest of the body, so when you're resistant to this hormone, blood sugar rises. At the prediabetes stage, your body can counter the problem by pumping out more insulin.

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Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg

But this diagnosis also means that the special cells in your pancreas (called beta cells) that make insulin have started to burn out. So eventually, insulin production declines and blood sugar levels creep up. "You have the same issues with prediabetes as with type 2, the difference is just the degree," Weisenberger adds. Because the condition usually has no outward symptoms, your doctor will give you a blood test to confirm whether or not you have it.

illustration of a person walking with a bag of vegetables
Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Make Plants the Star of Your Plate

Filling up on veggies, fruits, grains, beans and plant-based oils may help improve the steadiness of post-meal blood sugar levels, compared to eating a more meat-centric diet, Danish researchers found. But they note that effective veg-forward eating can still include moderate amounts of lean animal products, like chicken. In fact, this kind of vegetarian-ish diet may lower the risk of developing prediabetes in the first place.

Do It: Get recipes at our vegetarian diet center.

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Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Pick the Right Fats

People with prediabetes who ate 50 grams a day of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs, found in nuts and oils) saw better insulin sensitivity after 12 weeks versus those who consumed just 20 to 30 grams of these fats, according to a study conducted at the Mayo Clinic. Worth noting: Half of the MUFAs came from olive oil (2½ Tbsp. daily). This oil is known for its anti-inflammatory properties—important because inflammation is linked to insulin resistance.

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Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Snag More Zzzs

Getting less than 5 hours of sleep a night increased the risk of progressing from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes by 68%, compared to getting 7 hours, according to a study published in Diabetic Medicine. Inadequate rest increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can release stored sugar into your blood for energy. Cortisol also temporarily increases insulin resistance so your body has extra sugar to fuel your groggy self—not great for your health if it happens frequently. Food can also make a difference with this, check out Healthy Recipes for Sleep-Enhancing Foods.

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Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Muscle Up

In a study published in PLOS ONE, after strength training for 30 minutes, twice a week for three months, 30% of people with prediabetes returned to healthy blood sugar levels. Muscle tissue absorbs sugar out of your bloodstream to burn for energy. So more muscle equals bigger impact.

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Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Scale Back

"If someone is overweight—and not everyone with prediabetes is—making diet and exercise changes to drop some pounds can be key," says Weisenberger. "We know that when people lose as little as 5% of their body weight, their insulin sensitivity improves." Our 7-day Prediabetes Diet Plan is a great way to kick off healthy lifestyle changes to prevent diabetes—without sacrificing flavor

illustration of. a man pouring out soda bottle
Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg

Say "So long" to Soda

A year after getting diagnosed with prediabetes, 34% of people who continued to drink sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, juice or otherwise) developed type 2 diabetes, while only 8% of those who gave them up did, according to Japanese researchers.

Don't tackle all six actions at once. Start with one or two steps that you can easily put into action. Experience success with these goals. Then add a few more steps to what you're already accomplishing. Success breeds success.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine January/February 2020.