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The small changes you can make to prevent or manage diabetes

For Diabetes Awareness Month in November, members of the VCU Health Dietetic Internship talk about preventing and managing diabetes.

Woman cooking Photo: Getty Images

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that affects how your body uses sugar. Many of the foods you eat are broken down into sugar and released into our bloodstream. Your body makes a hormone called insulin that helps that sugar get into your cells and give you energy.

With type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your body makes insulin, but you’re unable to use it properly. Both types cause your blood sugar levels to rise.  

Pre-diabetes is when your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes. Pre-diabetes can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.

How do you get diabetes?

The risk factors for type 1 diabetes are mostly unknown, but a family history of type 1 diabetes may play a role.  

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, there are many known risk factors. These include being overweight or obese, being inactive, being over 45, having high cholesterol or having a family history of the disease. Race and ethnicity may also increase risk, as research has shown a higher rate of type 2 diabetes in Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian populations.   

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Symptoms of diabetes include high blood sugar, frequent urination, increased thirst, hunger, blurred vision, fatigue, weight loss without trying, and numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.

Can you prevent diabetes?

Currently, there are no known ways to prevent type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, however, may be prevented or delayed through changes in lifestyle, such as: 

  • Losing excess weight — even as little as 7% of your body weight can help.
  • Increasing physical activity. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
  • Cutting back on carbohydrates and saturated fats and increasing the amount of plant-based foods (fiber) you eat.

Joining a 12-month CDC National Diabetes Prevention Program can give you the tools and support needed to prevent type 2 diabetes. You can also join a diabetes prevention program at the VCU Health Hub @ 25th.

Why is diet so important in managing diabetes?

Because food affects your blood sugar levels, what you eat is an important part of managing your condition. A registered dietitian can help you keep your blood sugar levels in check.

If you have type 2 diabetes you’re also at higher risk for developing high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol. Sticking to your diabetes food plan will help you reduce your risk of developing these conditions. 

Can you provide some quick, easy tips on eating healthy with diabetes?

Here are some basic concepts to keep in mind:

  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages
    Sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet. Limiting these and choosing healthier options such as water or unsweetened iced tea can help you prevent or manage type 2 diabetes.
  • Eat more healthy, plant-based food
    Plant-based foods provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that can decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Eat more whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans and peas), fruits, and vegetables. Consider keeping packs of plain frozen vegetables on hand to easily increase the amount of fiber in your meal.

  • Eat more healthy fats
    Eating more healthy fats can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other related health problems. Limit saturated fat, which can be found in foods such as butter and fatty pieces of meat. Eat more foods with heart-healthy fats, which can be found in avocados, canola oil, olive oil, fish, nuts, and peanut butter. 

  • Get help from a health care professional
    Meet with your doctor regularly and add a registered dietitian or certified diabetes care and education specialist to your health care team. RDNs can help you meet your nutrition and weight goals, and CDCESs can help you learn more about your diabetes self-care behaviors and the things you can do to stay healthy.

The holidays are coming up. What are some tips on maintaining a healthy diet during the holidays?

Become familiar with the carbohydrate content of the foods you eat at holiday dinners. Bring non-starchy vegetables to the table that are rich in fiber. When eating out, review menus and nutrition facts beforehand or ask the staff for them. As always, consume quality carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes over white bread and pasta.

You may be tempted to undereat to "earn" your holiday meal. However, this can cause low blood sugar and result in overeating. Spread your carbohydrates evenly throughout the day and be mindful of portions. If you treat yourself to a small slice of pie, be aware of how those carbs fit into that day’s food plan. You may have to cut out carbs elsewhere.

What do you wish people knew about diabetes?

You don’t have to completely cut out carbohydrates to manage your blood sugar. It's all about smaller portion sizes. If you can master properly portioning each meal and snack, you can likely master blood sugar control.

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