Delene P. Musielak, MD, FAAP, FACP

Diabetes is a very well-known disease, but the risks associated with it are often taken for granted. Also, diabetes is a lot more serious than what many people may think and understand. The risk of type 2 diabetes is up to six times higher in African Americans compared to Caucasians in the United States. The risk is even five to 10 times higher if you have a first-degree relative with diabetes. [1] 

Our pancreas is the organ that is responsible for making insulin. In turn, insulin helps regulate blood sugars. Type 2 diabetes is a disease process in which the pancreas does its job and makes insulin, but the body is resistant to the insulin. Therefore, the body does not utilize the insulin that is available, and as a result, sugar levels start going up. 

With a lot of people being isolated during the pandemic and working from home, many are living more sedentary lives. This has resulted in an increase in obesity in addition to the rate of diabetes. Now, more than ever, it is important for people to be educated about diabetes and know what steps they can take to decrease their risk. 

Here are four tips to help you live healthier and decrease your risk of diabetes:

Know your family history.

Often, I have patients who do not know all of their family history. The most common statement I hear is, “We never talk about it.” Today, I encourage you to talk about it. Our genetic makeup has such a significant effect on our physical and mental health. Combine our genetics with our lifestyles, and the effect is even more significant. 

For example, if you knew your family had a history of diabetes and you noticed that you were gaining weight, you would probably work a little harder to lose the weight because you know that you are more likely to develop diabetes. On the other hand, if you were unaware of a family history of diabetes, you may let a few extra pounds slide without a second thought. 

Another important aspect of family history beyond asking about diabetes is asking family members about other illnesses, such as a stroke, kidney failure or a heart attack. Having diabetes increases your risk of these illnesses. Therefore, it is just as important to ask your family if there was an underlying cause of any heart attacks or strokes in the family. 

Be the conversation starter!

Be mindful of what you are eating.

I am someone who loves food! There is definitely something very pleasing and delightful when we consume good meals, snacks and drinks. However, our lifestyle and pattern of eating affects our risk of diabetes significantly. You may not realize it, but sugar does not just come from candy and other sweets. Sugars come from any foods that contain carbohydrates. This includes sugar found in sweets and fruit, fiber found in vegetables and whole grains, and starch found in starchy vegetables (corn, peas and potatoes) and cereal. These break down into sugar. 

The American Diabetes Association does a great job of demonstrating a healthy plate, which contains protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. This includes one-fourth of the plate is protein, one-fourth of the plate is carbohydrates and one-half of the plate consists of non-starchy vegetables. [2] So don’t think that you can’t eat any carbohydrates or starches. The key is in the portion sizes. As you eat your meals and snacks, be more mindful of the carbs that you are consuming and the amount you are consuming. Recommendations for glucose management include consistent carbohydrate intake throughout the day rather than carb cycling. Bread can be a part of a healthy diet, including those with diabetes. A sandwich on average contains 30-40 gm of carbohydrates, which for most individuals should fall within carbohydrate recommendations per meal.  

Moderation and portion sizes matter!

Drink calories can add up. 

Now let’s talk about drinks. Many drinks have “empty calories.” What I mean by this is that if you drink a soda, sweet tea, juice or any other high sugar content drink, those calories go to your daily calorie count, but provide next to no nutrition and often do not fill you up. Even after drinking a can or individual bottle of soda, you are still hungry. This is a difficult topic for a lot of people due to water tasting bland. One way to help with that is by adding sugar free water flavoring. Another nice part about this is that you can switch the flavors so you are able to add a little variety in your life. I also like to encourage individuals to drink a glass of water for every glass of soda, juice or sweet tea they drink. 

During the holiday season, don’t forget that alcoholic beverages also contain carbohydrates (e.g., beer) and wine contains sugar. Significant alcohol consumption can lead to what we call a “tea and toast” diet. Essentially, what happens is that people who consume very large amounts of alcohol daily fill up on those calories and do not eat anything that is nutritious and in turn become malnourished. Again, the key is moderation regarding alcohol consumption. Limit to one drink for women and two for men per day. One serving equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of liquor. 

If you are someone who consumes a lot of sugary drinks, you would be amazed by the potential weight loss you could obtain just by changing your drinking habits and replacing those drinks with water. 

Try it!

Exercise. 

Exercise is one of those activities that we all know we should be doing, but it is really difficult to get into the habit. The good news is, once you get into the habit of exercising, it becomes so much easier. Studies have shown that there is an association between abdominal obesity and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Therefore, exercising and healthy eating in order to decrease abdominal obesity may reduce one’s risk of developing diabetes. [3]

An important point about exercise is making sure that you start at a level in which you will not hurt yourself. Please talk with your physician before starting an exercise routine. Make sure you begin at a comfortable pace and set goals. As you meet your goals and increase your endurance and strength, you can gradually increase the intensity of your workout routine. 

Also, note that you do not need anything fancy to get a good workout. You can do a workout that is as simple as walking, running or an exercise routine in your living room. 

Think about getting a workout buddy. Accountability is one of the most motivating factors to stay on track with your exercise routine. On those early mornings or evenings after getting done with work, your workout buddy will be your cheerleader and hold you accountable. 

Get up and go!

As we run the last lap of 2020, I challenge you to make better choices and set yourself up for a happier and healthier 2021. Be informed and be proactive. 

Dr. Musielak is the creator and host of The Dr. Mom Show Podcast. You can find more information at www.drdelenemusielak.com