November 04, 2022

From Ireland farm fresh to U.S. processed foods, navigating a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis

Written by
Dr. Michael Sloane

November is Diabetes Awareness Month and a chance to share more about the increasing prevalence of the disease. A Population Health Metrics report predicts that by 2050, diabetes prevalence will triple, and one in three Americans will have diabetes. Alabama has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the nation at around 15 percent.

One UAB faculty member, Michael Sloane, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is championing activities and healthy lifestyle choices to combat high A1C levels and his Type 2 diabetes diagnosis that he received in 2013.

“Though I consider myself an educated person, I was totally clueless about the health implications of my eating and non-existent exercise habits. As a result, the call from my doctor with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes was a shock,” said Sloane.

His diabetes specialist put him on Metformin, a medication to control high blood sugar, and signed him up for a diabetes management education class.

“I found the class to be very useful with regards to foods, ingredient labels, blood-sugar monitoring, exercise, and more. I’m not a big fan of medications, so I vowed to work hard at changing my eating habits and starting to exercise to lower my A1C levels,” said Sloane.

From Ireland to the U.S.

Sloane grew up in the rolling countryside of Ireland, where processed foods were far from a dietary staple– everything was farm to table. His family grew all their own vegetables and fruits, raised chickens for eggs, and bought meat from a neighboring farmer or fresh cuts from the town butcher.

So, when he came over to the U.S. to complete his doctoral work at Northwestern University in 1979, Sloane was plunged into a consumer market that was riddled with highly processed and sugary food choices. The jolt from farm fresh to an abundance of processed and sugary foods that Sloane experience is not an experience many Americans will have.

From a young age, Americans are all too familiar with sugary, processed, and ultra-processed foods dominating grocery shelves, gas stations, and convenience stores.

The CDC reports that nationally, 63 percent of adults aged 18 or older reported drinking sugar-sweetened beverages once daily or more. A study published in January 2022 notes that the consumption of ultra-processes foods– including items like instant and canned soups, French fries, chips, protein bars, and energy drinks–increased among all US adults from 2001-2002 to 2017-2018.

For Sloane, his approach to managing diabetes in a processed-food culture began with smart choices like smaller portions, no sodas or orange juice, and walking around the indoor track at the UAB Campus Recreation Center. These seemingly small choices allowed him to keep his promise to himself to be able to manage his Type 2 diabetes without medication.

Sloane was able, with doctor supervision, to come off the Metformin medication within a year or so post-diagnosis, and his A1C levels have been in the normal range since then.

Fast forward to June 2022, when Sloane finished a marathon run in Brazil that officially completed his seven continents seven marathons global challenge. To date, less than 1,000 people from around the world can call themselves the select few of the Seven Continents Club®, and Sloane is one of them.

He notes that working up to a complete lifestyle change– from inactivity to racing across continents–started by taking baby steps. These baby steps then morphed into an unstoppable snowball: once one good choice was made, it encouraged another good choice, and so on.

“After a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, I think the key is to change gradually and not to suddenly change your behaviors as such strategies rarely persist. Expect that you will, at times, stray from your new habits. Don’t beat yourself up over slip-ups and get back on the horse!” said Sloane.

Dr. Michael Sloane on the Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls Dr. Michael Sloane on the Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls A diabetes diagnosis is not an identity

Though diabetes is something that Sloane manages day to day, his diagnosis is not the cornerstone of his identity at UAB or outside of the office.

“I’m married to my wonderful wife of 40 years, Dr. Cynthia Owsley,” said Sloane. “And, I’ve been with the faculty of the UAB Department of Psychology since 1982 when I joined as a sprite 25-year-old assistant professor. I enjoy serving as director of UAB’s flagship honors program, the University Honors Program. And, I have just finished a three-year cycle of chair elect, chair, and past chair of UAB’s Faculty Senate.”

Outside of work, Sloane keeps up with several news outlets and all things sports, especially soccer, rugby, and college football. Running, is of course, still a large part of his story.

“I have kept up my running and am a member of the Birmingham Track Club’s 1200 Mile Club, whose members complete 100 miles of running each month. I participate in many local 5k, 10k races and occasionally half-marathons,” said Sloane.

Screening and research are key

This Diabetes Awareness Month, Sloane encourages those with diabetes, care providers, and researchers to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease as well as screening options for the community.

According to the American Diabetes Association, common symptoms of Type 2 diabetes include urinating often, feeling very thirsty, feeling very hungry, extreme fatigue, blurry vision, cuts/bruises that are slow to heal, and tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands and feet. If you are concerned that you may have diabetes, seek the guidance of your medical provider.

“Knowing you have it is a critical first step, so community outreach programs that involve screening for diabetes are vital in making an impact. It is sad to hear about people who suffer irreversible loss of vision due to diabetic retinopathy simply because they were never screened for diabetes,” said Sloane.

In tangent with proper nutrition and exercise alongside his care team, Sloane finds hope for diabetes management in the curative therapy research strides that have been made at UAB.

“As is the case for many other diseases and challenging medical conditions, UAB’s signature approach of involving researchers from multiple disciples to understand the disease and develop potential treatments is firmly in place under the umbrella of our Comprehensive Diabetes Center,” said Sloane. “The collaborative efforts of many talented researchers in basic and clinical research here at UAB bodes well for future success.”

The UCDC is a University-Wide Interdisciplinary Research Center comprised of over 200 faculty members from 10 different schools and many departments. It also serves as the umbrella for various research programs and awards; including the prestigious P30 Diabetes Research Center (DRC), U01 Human Islet Research Network (HIRN) grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and several research core facilities.