This is Public Health

Diabetes: Are you at risk?

Overall, about 10 per cent of Canadians are living with diabetes. Amongst Canadians aged 70 years and older, that rate more than doubles to 20 to 25 per cent. There are two main types of diabetes. Most people living with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, which is largely preventable.

Aging is just one of the risk factors identified by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for developing type 2 diabetes. While you have no control over some risk factors such as your age, gender, family history, and ethno-cultural origin, there are factors you can modify in an effort to live a diabetes-free life. 

Jeff Johnson is a professor School of Public Health and an expert in diabetes monitoring and management. He suggests three key lifestyle changes that not only reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but are key to managing the disease if you’ve already been diagnosed.

1. Lower your body weight.

Losing weight is the single most effective way of preventing a number of diseases, including diabetes.

“People identified at a high risk of developing diabetes, can reduce that risk by an amazing 60 per cent, by losing just 5 per cent of their body weight,” Johnson said. “For someone overweight at 200 pounds, that’s only 10 pounds to lose.”

2. Eat a healthy diet.

Weight loss and a healthy diet go hand-in-hand.

“There’s an old saying that goes, ‘you can’t outrun a bad diet,’” Johnson said. “To achieve weight loss, you must make healthy food choices and not rely on exercise alone.”

A healthy diet includes vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Adults outlines criteria for making healthy food choices.

3. Increase your physical activity.

“Physical activity together with a healthy diet is the cornerstone to disease prevention,” explained Johnson.

Johnson promotes walking as the easiest, cheapest and most accessible means of physical activity. He recently published research in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism showing that people 55 years and older who walked a minimum of 7,500 steps per day, fell into a lower diabetes risk category. In fact, those included in his study who did not achieve that number of steps were more than twice as likely be in a high-risk category.

If 7,500 steps seem like a lot, Johnson suggests setting a starting goal to simply move more. “Walking just one block further, or for five minutes longer than you do now will make a difference,” he said.

Diabetes shares several risk factors with other chronic diseases so, according to Johnson, making these lifestyle changes may also reduce your risk of hypertension and heart disease, for example.


Are you at risk of developing diabetes? The Canadian Diabetes Risk Questionnaire (CANRISK) is an assessment tool developed by PHAC. The questionnaire is not a substitute for diagnosis; be sure to speak to your doctor about your risk score and the steps you should take to improve your health.