Diabetes sounds frightening, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of medications, insulin injections and health complications. Diabetes is one disease that you can control and sometimes even completely reverse through healthy lifestyle changes.
What's at Stake
In the United States alone, nearly 30 million people suffer from diabetes, a chronic disease in which the body doesn’t make or use insulin effectively, leading to high levels of sugar in the blood. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40 percent of Americans, at some point in their lifetime, will be diagnosed with diabetes or its precursor, prediabetes—the stage when you don’t have all the disease symptoms but register abnormally high blood sugar.
Diabetes, the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., can cause devastating complications, including stroke, heart disease, hypertension, vision loss, kidney failure, nerve damage and limb amputation.
Make a Change
“If you’re diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes—which usually occurs in adulthood—there’s something you can do about it,” says Chhavi Mehta, M.D., an internal medicine physician with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Burlingame. “Diet and exercise can control blood sugar levels and reverse the diagnosis.”
Dr. Mehta suggests these strategies to prevent and manage diabetes:
- Maintain a healthy weight — Eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods. Don’t experiment with a fad or extreme diet, which may prevent you from getting the nutrients you need.
- Exercise more — It not only helps you lose weight, but can also lower your blood sugar.
- Eat fiber — Fiber helps you lose weight, balance blood sugar levels and reduce your heart disease risk.
- Choose whole grains — Stay away from white carbohydrates. Whole grains, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, help your body maintain better blood sugar levels.
- Eat the right proteins — Include fish, cheese, eggs, seafood and poultry.
- Choose nonfat or low-fat dairy items.
- Enjoy healthy fats — Try nuts, avocado, and olive and canola oil.
- Stay away from sugary drinks — If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation: no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
Your lifestyle changes don’t have to be drastic to work. The Diabetes Prevention Program, a national clinical research study of 3,234 people, found that participants who lost a modest amount of weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity sharply reduced their chances of developing diabetes.
If you’re overweight, suffer from high blood pressure or have a family history of diabetes, your risk for diabetes increases. Make diabetes prevention a priority, and talk to your doctor for information and help.
Diabetes care and prevention are evolving. Many medical centers offer robust prevention and management programs, and you’ll often have access to a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, educators and dietitians. Services range from diabetes self-care classes where you’ll learn how to manage your diet and insulin injections, to support groups where you can share experiences.
“People with diabetes benefit from hearing each other’s stories,” Dr. Mehta says. “You learn that others are going through the same thing and you can be inspired by people who brought their sugars down.”
Accept your emotions, set goals for your health and get the support you need. “When you first get a diabetes diagnosis, it often brings up fear, especially if you need to start taking insulin,” Dr. Mehta says. “The more contact you have with a diabetes educator or healthcare professional, the more successful you’ll be at managing it.”