YMCAs across the Twin Cities are part of a national effort to help overweight people stave off diabetes by making lifestyle changes involving more activity and fewer fats and calories.

More than 300 people have taken the Y's 16-week, research-based class in the nearly two years it has been offered. They have averaged a 5 percent weight loss, enough to delay or prevent diabetes, said Sheryl Grover, diabetes prevention specialist for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.

"Losing a little weight can make a huge difference," Grover said. "If you can catch it before the glucose level gets too high, you can reverse the process. But once you are diagnosed with it, you will always have diabetes."

The Y's course, like three others in Minnesota, is aimed at reducing health costs that annually top $175 billion to treat the 25.8 million Americans with the incurable disease, including 267,000 Minnesotans, according to the state Department of Health.

Another estimated 1.4 million Minnesota adults have prediabetes and face increased risk of diabetes. The total of those with diabetes and prediabetes equals about 40 percent of adults in the state, said Rita Mays, a diabetes prevention planner for the health department.

Many of those with prediabetes don't know they have it because they have never been tested or diagnosed, she said.

"We encourage people to take a know-your-risk test. If you answer yes to many of the questions, see your doctor and get tested to see if your blood glucose is higher than normal," Mays said.

She said the YMCA course is the same one used in the Health Department's "I CAN Prevent Diabetes" program around the state and by the Indian Health Services course for Indians, who along with Asians, Latinos and African-Americans are at higher risk of diabetes.

Mays said the state will use a federal grant to hire Y coaches to lead classes in a new program starting in January in local clinics for Medicare and Medicaid participants at high risk of diabetes. "The Y has a really great coaching program," she said.

YMCAs from Minnetonka to Hudson and Andover to Burnsville offer the year-long prevention program. It includes a three-month Y pass for non-members, trainer fitness evaluation and activity suggestions, and a support group that meets monthly after the 16 weekly sessions end.

The Y course costs $320 for non-members, $249 for members. Participants get fat and calorie counters to track their intake and help them make food choices needed to lose 7 percent of their body weight.

"We are dealing with a lot of folks who are very heavy. It hurts when they get active, so we talk about moderate activity," Grover said. "There is no prescribed activity. They work up to 150 minutes a week by the end of 16 weeks."

The key, she said, is learning new habits that become a lifestyle, not just starting another short-lived diet. "It has to be something they think they could do going forward," Grover said. "There are a lot of mental changes in making lifestyle changes. They all move at different rates. It is all their choices. I think that is why it works."

Diabetes lifestyle coach Anne DePrey is leading a course at the Burnsville Y. The four attendees had collectively lost 65 pounds at last week's weigh-in in the 15th week. She said the aim is to gradually lose a pound or two a week. "If you lose too fast without changing habits, you will gain it back," she said.

At a recent Tuesday night meeting at the Y, the three men and a woman, most in their 50s, talked about handling sometimes sensitive social situations involving food. One idea was to contribute fruit to the doughnuts and sweets that people share at work. Another question was what and how to order on a restaurant outing with friends.

"I like to order first because if you are last, it is hard to chime in, 'I will have the salad,' " said Steve Orasz, 50, of Shakopee. He said afterward that he joined the class to avoid the diabetes that afflicted his parents.

"The class is education about making daily decisions," he said. "For me, that is tracking what I eat and how much exercise I do. ... All of us are going through the same thing, and we share our struggles and our successes. Anne gives us a lot of insight on the different challenges in trying to be healthy and how to confront them."

The Y based its class goals on national studies that show a 5 percent to 7 percent weight loss is enough to prevent or postpone diabetes. A 7 percent loss cuts the risk of getting the most common Type 2 diabetes by nearly 60 percent, DePrey said.

By 2050, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimate that rising obesity, an aging population and other factors will lead to one in three adults having diabetes.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283