If diabetes were an infectious disease, the United States would be in the midst of an epidemic. With 24 million Americans diagnosed and 6 million Americans unaware that they have diabetes, it’s projected that 48 million people will have diabetes by 2050.
The symptoms associated with diabetes are sprawling, ranging from weight gain to vision complications to nerve damage so severe it results in the loss of a limb. Living with diabetes can be an emotional roller coaster for the person diagnosed, and their loved ones.
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The one promising thing about diabetes is that there is a lot we can do as individuals to reduce our risk and prevent the onset of diabetes, despite our family or genetic history. Lifestyle and diet choices have a huge impact on whether or not people develop type-2 diabetes. By taking control of our health with mindful choices, we have the power to protect ourselves from diabetes.
What is Diabetes?
Type-1 diabetes constitutes about 5-10% of those who get diabetes. It occurs when the system permanently disables the insulin-making cells in the pancreas, so the body has no natural way of managing and storing glucose. Because the body doesn’t produce insulin, blood sugar levels can get very high or low if not closely managed. This is known as juvenile diabetes.
Type-2 diabetes is what most people who have diabetes have, and it tends to slowly creep up on people. Type-2 diabetes occurs when muscle and other cells stop responding to insulin, and insulin making cells get exhausted and begin to fail so that the body has no natural way of storing glucose.
Insulin resistance happens when the body’s blood sugar levels are high over long periods of time, and cells stop responding to insulin prompting them to open to receive the glucose. This leaves high levels of glucose floating around our bodies causing chronically high blood sugar levels. Type-2 diabetes was originally known as adult-onset diabetes, but it is becoming much more common in youth.
In addition to those who already have diabetes, 57 million Americans have what’s known as pre-diabetes. This refers to people with blood glucose levels that are high but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. This is the point at which lifestyle choices can make all the difference.
Living with Diabetes
With diabetes, the body is not able to properly regulate the production of insulin to manage blood sugar levels. Chronically high blood sugar results in a number of health issues:
- Known as diabetic nephropathy, diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in adults.
- Diabetes leads to nerve damage, or neuropathy, that can become so severe it results in the loss of a limb.
- High blood sugar levels cause diabetic retinopathy, which can severely damage the blood vessels of the retina causing blurred vision, pain in the eyes, changes in vision, and even blindness.
- Diabetes can affect your sex life. If you’re a man, diabetes can damage the erectile tissue making it impossible for a man to achieve or maintain an erection. For women, recurrent vaginitis or cystitis can result from diabetes, making intercourse painful and unsafe.
- Diabetes causes seventy thousand deaths each year.
Symptoms that may indicate you have diabetes include increased thirst, frequent need to urinate, blurred vision, fatigue, and tingling or pain in hands, feet, and/or legs.
Managing Your Risk
If you are predisposed to diabetes through family history or genetics, or if you are pre-diabetic, there is a lot you can do through lifestyle choices to manage your blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
Because being overweight increases the chances of you developing diabetes sevenfold, and inactivity promotes type-2 diabetes, getting active and managing your weight through diet and lifestyle are two powerful ways to take control over your situation.
Get up and move
Being sedentary is one of the worst things you can do if you’re at risk for diabetes. If hitting the gym daily for an hour is not your thing though, not to worry. Studies show that just thirty minutes of movement, including walking, can significantly improve your physical health, thus reducing your chances of developing or sustaining diabetes.
Movement activates your muscles and improves their ability to use insulin and absorb glucose. This reignites the body’s innate ability to regulate blood sugar levels itself and enhances its natural regulatory mechanisms.
Light activity can help you to lose weight by improving circulation, strengthening your muscles, lightening the load on your joints, and activating your metabolism so that all of the mechanisms of your system begin to work more efficiently.
Make safe and sustainable diet changes
When it comes to diabetes, food can really be the slowest form of poison or the fastest source of medicine.
High sugar, highly refined foods create diabetes. Because they are quickly converted to glucose in the body, they cause intense spikes in blood sugar. When we eat these foods, the pancreas begins pumping insulin to deliver glucose to the cells. In a healthy body, the cells absorb glucose and stabilize blood sugar levels. What’s happening now is that so much of the American diet is made up of high sugar, highly refined foods that the body is in a constant state of shock trying to bring down blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels are high over long periods of time, insulin resistance occurs in cells and they aren’t properly able to manage blood sugar levels. This directly contributes to diabetes.
Safe and healthy diet changes include:
- Eating a low carb diet is a good start, but even just moving to a slow carb diet by eating whole grains instead of white, refined grains is an easy and powerful transition. This means eating things like whole wheat and brown rice, as they’re more slowly converted into sugar in the body.
- Cutting out sugary drinks, and other forms of food laden with sugar. This means look at your labels and choose items that have the lowest sugar content. If ‘sugar’ or anything ending in ‘–ose’ is the first ingredient in the ingredient list on a package, it means there’s the most of it in the food.
- Cut out artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners don’t have calories, but they do still cause your blood sugar to spike.
- Eat whole foods. Vegetables and fruit and your biggest weapon against diabetes because they’re packed with nutrients, fiber and antioxidants that boost your body in every way possible. Suggested foods are fruit for breakfast, nuts to snack on, and making half of your dinner plate a mix of vegetables and leafy greens.
- Cut down on red meat and processed meats. It’s believed that high levels of iron in red meat diminish insulin’s effectiveness, or damage the cells that produce insulin. Processed meats are full of sodium that interferes with insulin production.
- Cinnamon is a powerful tool in stabilizing your blood sugar at it slows down the distribution of glucose into your cells and helps protect against blood sugar spikes.
- Nature is packed with delicious, slow burning sugars! Deserts you can try are berries with unsweetened yogurt and pure maple syrup, dates, cookies or cakes sweetened with honey, or dark chocolate (70% cacao) and almonds.
- Eating well is not about giving up what you love, but finding nutrition through food that tastes good and support your higher health and happiness. Try your options and find things that make you feel good.
Smokers are about 50% more likely to develop diabetes than non-smokers, and heavy smokers are at an even higher risk. If you’re at risk for diabetes quitting smoking should be high on your list, plain and simple. Find a program to help you get started and cut it out of your life, for your own sake and the sake of your loved ones.