Weighing the Risks, Preventing the Consequences

What is Diabetes? 

The most common type of diabetes is "type II diabetes" where the cells of the body have become less responsive to the hormone insulin. Insulin opens up the doors of the cells when the blood sugar rises after a meal. If the cells aren't able to open up, they starve for the sugar that's trapped at a level that's far too high in the blood. When blood sugar remains too high over the years, it damages the body. The eyes, kidneys, nerves and blood vessels can all suffer. People with uncontrolled blood sugar often have high blood fats, which can lead to heart disease.

What are the risk factors?  

Knowing your risk factors for type II diabetes can help you start the changes now that can keep healthy for years to come.  Many people who have diabetes don't know it. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have diabetes.

  • Excessive Weight. Being overweight can cause the cells to resist insulin. Losing a few pounds can do wonders for making the cells more open to insulin and lowering blood sugar.
  • Family History. If you have a parent or a sibling with diabetes, then you may be genetically prone to diabetes.
  • Age. As we age our risk for diabetes increases - once you get past 65, the risk skyrockets.
  • Lack of exercise. Exercise makes the cells of the body more sensitive to insulin - effectively lowering blood sugar.

 What can you do? Studies show that changes in diet and exercise can effectively slow the onset or even prevent diabetes.

  • Eat more soluble fiber. The type of fiber found in oatmeal and starchy beans like pinto beans and black-eyed peas can lower blood sugar and cholesterol.
  • Count Carbohydrates. It doesn't matter whether it's candy or crackers, bananas or bread, the American Diabetes Association recommends counting total carbohydrates and spreading them out throughout the day to keep blood sugar in check. Of course, choosing healthier carbs has other benefits as well, so limiting the sweet stuff and choosing more whole grains is still a good idea.
  • Get Moving. Even when exercise doesn't result in weight loss, it lowers blood sugar by making the cells more receptive to insulin. Always discuss exercising with your doctor first - it may change your medication needs.
  • Include healthy fats. Since the blood fats in diabetes can get out of hand, choosing healthier fats like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, and avocados can help get cholesterol and the rest of your blood fats back in check. Substitute these unsaturated fats for saturated fats such as butter and high fat meats. Including healthy fats while moderating carbohydrates can also help control blood sugar. See Cooking Oil Confusion for more info!

A registered dietitian can help you develop a healthy eating pattern that is individualized to your needs and lifestyle. You can also log onto to the American Diabetes Association's website at www.diabetes.org  for more information.

Beth Kitchin PhD RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences