How to reduce your risk of diabetes

Justin Jones, Head of Physiology at Nuffield Health explains the symptoms, the difference between types 1 and 2 diabetes, and what you can do to reduce your chances of developing the condition.

It’s estimated that 4 million people in the UK are living with diabetes, which is expected to rise to 5 million by 2025. This is a huge concern because, in addition to the impact on quality of life, diabetes can cut life short by up to 10 years.

What is diabetes?

When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks these down into glucose, increasing your blood glucose levels. Your pancreas responds by releasing insulin to transport the glucose from your blood into your cells, so that you can store it and use it for energy later.

Diabetes is an umbrella term for conditions where the body fails to do this efficiently. There are a few different types of diabetes, but almost all result in chronically high blood glucose levels.

If this isn’t managed, it can cause irreversible damage to your eyes, kidneys, heart, brain and nerve endings. The consequences can be very serious and include blindness, cardiovascular disease, dementia and even amputation. Diabetes can also increase the risk of complications associated with COVID-19.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

The two most common forms of diabetes are type 1 and type 2, which have very similar symptoms:

  • excessive thirst
  • extreme fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss
  • genital itching or thrush
  • blurred vision
  • slow healing wounds
  • increased urination, particularly at night.

What’s the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

Type 1 and type 2 are often referred to simply as ‘diabetes’, but while they share symptoms, there are some distinct differences. For example, type 2 diabetes symptoms can develop much slower and it can be more difficult to recognise. Other differences include:

  • Prevalence: Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, making up about 90% of diabetic cases.
  • Cause: Type 1 diabetes is considered an autoimmune disease when the human body incorrectly attacks its own healthy cells of the pancreas, mistaking them for a foreign invader in the body. These cells are responsible for producing the hormone insulin. Whereas, type 2 diabetes is linked to lifestyle factors.
  • Role of insulin: Type 1 diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce insulin, so it must be injected instead. Type 2 diabetics can still produce insulin, but the body’s cells become resistant to the effects – this can be managed with medication, diet and exercise, as well as insulin.
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA): Those with type 1 are more at risk of DKA – a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. Due to low levels of insulin, the body cannot get glucose into the cells to use for fuel. The body uses fat as an energy source instead and produces an excess of ketones. Symptoms include vomiting, dehydration, high heart rate, confusion and a distinctive smell on the breath, sometimes compared to nail varnish remover or pear drops.

What is pre-diabetes?

This is a grey area, where your blood glucose levels are higher than the recommended range, but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis.

This is a crucial opportunity to prevent diabetes from fully developing, by taking control of your modifiable risk factors.

Risk factors you can’t change

It’s important to be aware of the things you can’t control in your chances of developing diabetes.


Your risk increases with age and tends to be higher for those above 40. Our health assessment data from 2020 revealed that 2% of under 40s had an abnormal blood glucose, which doubles to 4% for those in their 40s and doubles again to 9% for those over 50. Although type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, it’s more commonly diagnosed in children.

Gestational Diabetes

This is a type of diabetes that pregnant individuals develop and they are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes in their future.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Women who have PCOS are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Family history

If you have a family history of diabetes, then your risk may be higher.


Some ethnic groups are a greater risk of diabetes – the risk for South Asian is up to 6 times higher, while for African and African-Caribbean populations it is 3 times higher and increased risk comes at the age of 25 and over.

Reducing your risk of diabetes

Type 2 diabetes has many preventable risk factors.

Manage your weight

Being overweight is a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes. This is a BMI of 30 kg/m2 or above for Caucasian individuals and 32.5 kg/m2 for South Asian indivisuals. The more optimal your weight, the lower your risk.

17% of our health assessment clients in 2020 were obese.

Another way to determine your risk is to measure your waist circumference as adipose tissue around the waist is especially impactful. This should be less than 80cm for women and less than 94cm for Caucasian men, or less than 90cm for Asian men.

Stay active

Being physically active not only helps to control your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, but also helps to support the transport of glucose from your blood into your cells.

It’s recommended that you complete at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, however Public Health England (2022) report 34% of men and 42% of women do not meet activity levels advised for good health.

If this includes you, as well as aiming to get more exercise in, try sitting down less. Being sedentary is an independent risk factor for diabetes, so try to get up and about for at least a few minutes every hour to stretch your legs.

Eat healthily

Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase your risk of developing diabetes, and given their lack of symptoms, they may be more prevalent than you think. According to our health assessment data, 12% of clients presented with high blood pressure, while 19% had suboptimal cholesterol.

Keep these risk factors in check by following a Mediterranean diet. Eating a diet of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre and has been shown to improve cardiometabolic health.

Despite the protective factors associated with a healthy diet, just 31% of adults consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Avoid smoking and drink less

Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are associated with an increased risk of diabetes. Smoking rates in the UK have been dropping for quite some time, however 14.5% of people still partook in this damaging habit in 2020.

Also, try not to drink more than 14 units per week, spread over 2 to 3 days.

Mental health conditions and sleep

Having schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression can increase risk. Disrupted sleep can increase your risk.

Want to know more about your risk?

To understand your risk in more detail, our health assessments include measurements of BMI, waist circumference, blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, urinalysis (to check for glucose and ketones) and your lifetime risk of diabetes.

Our expert Health and Wellbeing Physiologists will work with you to help you truly understand the risk factors you can control and support you in making an action plan to address them.

Have a look at our range of health assessments to help you decide on the right one for you.


Diabetes UK, (2010). Key Statistics on Diabetes [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 12 November 2020], (2019). Diabetes prevalence [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 12 November 2020]

Diabetes UK, (n.d.). What is DKA (Diabetic Ketoacidosis? [WWW]. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2022], (2019). Causes of Type 1 Diabetes [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 11 May 2022], (2019). Diabetes Life Expectancy [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 11 May 2022]

Diabetes UK, (2019). What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes? [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 12 November 2020]

Diabetes UK, (2019). Diabetes Risk Factors [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed on 12th November 2020]

Office for National Statistics, (2021). Adult Smoking Habits in Great Britain [WWW]. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2022]

Public Health England, (2022). Physical Activity: applying All Our Health [WWW]. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2022]

Last updated Tuesday 17 May 2022

First published on Friday 13 November 2020