A salad and a green apple is shown next to measuring tape.
Diabetes education programs, which include help with making healthy lifestyle changes, are shown to be effective in a new study. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

A new study shows that diabetes prevention programs have great results—not only for losing weight, but also for lowering blood sugar, cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

The study came just after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced their intention to cover diabetes prevention programs starting in 2018 for Medicare patients who are at high risk for Type 2 diabetes.

The results are no surprise to Annie House, RD, CDE, diabetes program coordinator for Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“The goal of the diabetes prevention program is to help people lose 5 to 7 percent of their body weight and to be physically active for 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes five days a week,” House said. “We want to prevent a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, and research has shown that lifestyle change is more effective than medication.”

Spectrum Health’s diabetes prevention program began in May as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national diabetes prevention program, which is a partnership of public and private organizations working to reduce the growing problem of prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. House said Spectrum Health has been helping patients make lifestyle changes to prevent diabetes for a long time, before the addition of this program.

The first group of 10 participants just completed the program’s main 16-week session, during which they attended weekly classes where they not only recorded their weight, but also learned about nutrition, physical activity, grocery shopping and overcoming barriers to weight loss.

Now, the program participants are in the maintenance phase of the program, where they meet monthly until May 2017.

“The group dynamic of the class meeting for one year is meant to encourage people and keep them accountable,” House said. “These are all people on the same journey, who want to achieve the same goals and prevent a diagnosis of diabetes.”

Candidates for the program are those with prediabetes, meaning their bloodwork shows they are on the verge of having Type 2 diabetes, House said. Specifically, that means a fasting blood sugar level of 101 to 125 mg/dL (126 or higher on two separate tests is diabetes) and hemoglobin A1c between 5.7 and 6.4 percent (6.5 percent or higher is diabetes). House said doctors may test patients every six months, or annually, depending on the patient’s circumstances.

If you fall into that category, your primary care physician can refer you to the program, House said. Right now, the program is free thanks to a grant from the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Beginning in 2018 when Medicare starts to cover the program, House is hopeful that more insurance companies will offer coverage as well.

She urges patients to join the program to gain control of their health before they are diagnosed with diabetes.

“We know this is going to work long-term,” House said. “Medications for a lot of people are used as that easy button, but like anything, they come with a downside.”

Emily Woodcock, RD, a diabetes educator who helps lead the classes, offers these tips:

  • Get active 30 minutes per day by finding something you enjoy, whether it’s walking, swimming or doing yard work. If you come home from work and like to watch television, start getting up and marching during the commercials. The 30 minutes of activity don’t have to be consecutive, she said.
  • Track what you eat and your activity using a website or app such as My Fitness Pal. Find the one that works for you.
  • Use the plate method to ensure you’re getting balanced meals. Divide your plate so it includes ½ non-starchy vegetables, ¼ protein and the last ¼ carbs such as potatoes or pasta. Add in a little bit of dairy and fruit on the side.

“It’s a program that’s proven to work,” Woodcock said. “It’s hard to make these changes by yourself even though it might be stuff you know you should do. What’s so important about the program is the group dynamic and the support you get from everyone.”

According to the study, 29 million Americans now have diabetes, and another 86 million have prediabetes. By 2050, 25 percent of Americans are expected to have diabetes.