Most of us know someone in our life who lives with diabetes. It may even run in your family. It is estimated that 25.8 million people, or 8.3% of the U.S. population, have diabetes, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. It is also estimated that 79 million people have a condition called pre-diabetes. I have recently encountered a couple of people in my life who have mentioned that they are pre-diabetic and have since then realized how little information people really have about this epidemic that will be sweeping through our nation in the coming years. Having been in the medical field myself for many years and having been a diabetic educator for women with gestational diabetes, I am saddened and frustrated by the lack of attention that is put on food and lifestyle choices when it comes to managing diabetes. This is my attempt to simplify the information for anyone who may be interested.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a term used to describe a group of metabolic diseases in which the person has high blood sugar levels that is usually accompanied by frequent urination, feeling very thirsty, and feeling extremely hungry. This high blood sugar is caused by either inadequate insulin production by the pancreas OR the body’s inability to respond to the insulin OR both.
Let’s back up a bit. The simple story is that when we eat food, the level of sugar in our blood rises from the sugars in the food. In response to this rise in blood sugar, the body produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin works by drawing the sugar into our cells so the body can use it as energy. When there is not enough insulin OR the body is not responding to the insulin that is present, the sugars remain in the blood stream. Having chronically high blood sugar can lead to developing diabetes and leads to health issues such as :
- Heart attack
- High Blood Pressure
- Eye problems that can lead to trouble seeing or blindness
- Nerve damage in your hands and feet that can cause pain, tingling and numbness
- Kidney problems, including kidney failure
- Gum disease and tooth loss
There are 2 types of diabetes. Type 1 Diabetes is when the body does not produce any insulin. This type if diabetes is usually diagnosed earlier in life before the 40th birthday, often in the teen years or early adulthood. People with type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin injections for the rest of their life. Type 1 Diabetes makes up about 10% of all diabetes cases.
Type 2 Diabetes makes up the other 90% of diabetes cases. In Type 2 Diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin or does not respond properly to the insulin that is present. This type of diabetes used to be most common in older people, especially people who were overweight and physically inactive. With childhood obesity on the rise, we are seeing more and more young children diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes.
Some common symptoms of diabetes are:
- increased hunger, thirst, and urination
- dry mouth
- “fruity” breath
- blurry vision
- drastic weight changes
- numbness in hands and feet
- frequent infections and wounds/sores that take a long time to heal
- sexual dysfunction
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, please see your health care provider in order to see f you may be developing diabetes or pre-diabetes.
There is actually a third type of diabetes: gestational diabetes. But that is for another post.
What is Pre-diabetes?
Pre-diabetes means that your blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Without some sort of intervention at this point, it is very likely that within 10 years or less, the condition will progress to Type 2 Diabetes. If you have pre-diabetes, some of the damage to the body that high blood sugar causes may have already started. Your body is already telling you that something is not right. There is no such thing as having diabetes “just a little bit.” If your body is not assimilating the sugars that you eat in a proper way (sugars meaning ALL carbohydrates), you will not be healthy. The long term effects of chronic high blood sugar are severe.
There is, however, some good news. Research has shown that if you have prediabetes, you can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by almost 60 percent through lifestyle changes. These changes include increasing your physical activity, modest weight loss (losing as little as 5 to 7 percent of your current weight,) and making dietary changes that contribute to the healing of the gut lining and balancing of the intestinal flora. That tells me that the rise in Type 2 Diabetes is due to the current state of affairs in our food supply, the lack of physical activity that plagues our nation, and the auto-immune response that comes from impaired gut function and leaky gut. Without judgement, I am here to share some helpful tips to reduce your risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes, especially if you already have prediabetes.
5 Tips to Reduce Your Risk for Diabetes
#1 Maintain a healthy weight:
Being overweight is the number one risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that even modest weight loss can greatly decrease your risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes.
#2 Get out and exercise:
A sedentary lifestyle is directly related to a higher risk for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Even moderate exercise will begin to increase your body’s ability to effectively use the insulin that the pancreas produces. Exercise will also begin to burn excess body fat, which will decrease body weight and increase your body’s sensitivity to insulin. Other benefits of regular exercise include lower blood pressure, increased energy, improved circulation (reducing risk for heart disease,) reduced stress, and increased relaxation. Without getting into strict guidelines on how much to exercise, just get out there and move. Don’t go more than a couple of days without getting some exercise. The most effective and efficient way to get the exercise you need is to do high intensity interval exercise.
#3 Eat REAL food:
We live in a world full of processed, unhealthy foods. Go into any mainstream grocery store and start reading labels. Don’t even get me started. Want to reduce your risk for developing diabetes? Then don’t eat junk. Eat real food. Food that is fresh, simple, and unprocessed. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods that do not come from a box. Eat your fruits and vegetable. Eat good quality, humanely-raised meats. If you eat grains, make sure they are unprocessed and properly prepared. Read more HERE about that. And don’t believe the hype. Eating saturated fats will NOT give you heart disease. I’m not into any kind of crazy restrictive diets here, like totally low carb. Stick to meals with lots of healthy fats and good quality proteins to keep you satiated. Eat lots of veggies, especially leafy greens.
Remember that diabetes is a problem with metabolising carbohydrates, so don’t over do it. Simple carbs like processed flours and sugars will definitely make your body work harder to maintain good blood sugars. Your body is always trying to reach equilibrium, trying to find balance. I look at the pancreas as a working part of the body. If you continually abuse it by throwing tons of sugar at it in the form of processed carbohydrates (I’m talking sweets, rice, bread, etc.) , it may not continue to work efficiently for you. Be kind to your pancreas. Don’t overload it with too much work.
Things to avoid:
I don’t like to demonize any one thing when it comes to eating right. However, when it comes to reducing your risk for diabetes, I would recommend avoiding a few things: refined cereals, industrial vegetable ans seed oils (corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, sunflower, etc.), and fructose (especially high-fructose corn syrup.)
Cereal grains are overly-processed foods that are toxic to the lining of your gut, as well as containing anti-nutrients that inhibit the absorption of proteins and essential minerals, making them unusable by the body. (source) Learn more from my post : 3 Ugly Truth about Breakfast Cereals.
Industrial vegetable/seed oils are loaded with Omega-6 oils and contribute significantly to the obesity epideminc we are experiencing. They are a root cause of inflammation in the body which fuels the rise of obesity and diabetes. Other triggers for inflammation in the body include poor sleep, stress, gut flora imbalances, and environmental toxins. Chris Kresser has a great POST on inflammation and a condition he calls diabesity. I recommend using cold-pressed olive oil (never heated) and coconut oil, as these oils are nourishing for your body
Fructose is a sugar found mainly in fruits and vegetables, and in sweeteners like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. I was blown away to learn that the average American eats 152 pounds of sugar a year, which includes almost 64 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup. YIKES!!! Fructose, unlike glucose, gets directed to the liver and not absorbed into the bloodstream. There it is converted into fat. There is a direct correlation between fructose consumption and abdominal fat. And then there is a direct correlation between high amounts of abdominal fat and impaired glucose tolerance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides. (source ) For more info on this, see Robert Lustig’s YouTube talk: Sugar, The Bitter Truth.
#4 Heal the Gut
We often hear how diabetes runs in families, and yes, there is a genetic link to obesity and diabetes. The thing that we don’t hear a lot about is the link between diabetes and leaky gut, creating an auto-immune component to diabetes. There is recent evidence that gut flora is different in people with diabetes and people without. (source) There is research also suggesting that certain microorganisms in the gut flora can prevent and also reverse metabolic conditions such as diabetes. Studies in Sweden have led researchers to begin to formulate a new model for screening people at risk for diabetes based on altered gut flora finding. Amazing! Another reason to support the flora in your gut with probiotic foods every day.
#5 Avoid Toxic Exposure
There is increasing evidence linking exposure to toxins to diabetes. Basically, toxins in our environment cause inflammation in the body as well as decreased immune function. Again, the idea that diabetes and obesity are auto-immune issues. Not something that you hear about in Western medicine. Some of the negative effects of environmental toxins in the body include:
- impaired metabolism and cholesterol metablism
- increased insulin resisitence
- altered thyroid function
- altered appetite regulation
- increased inflammation
- impaired mitochondrial function
Chris Kresser shares a detailed account HERE on the effects of BPA on the obesity epidemic as well as the connection between environmental pollutants and the rise of diabetes.
To reduce your risk of toxins in your body, make a commitment to eating unprocessed, clean, organic, non-GMO foods. Remember that processed vegetable/seed oils and high fructose corn syrup are toxic to your body, as are grains that have not been properly prepared. Also, take a look around your house and see how you can reduce toxin exposure there. Be sure to use non-toxic household cleaners. Does you water contain chlorine? There are many new lines of more environmentally-friendly paints and stains if you decide to remodel. Avoid herbicide and pesticides s in the garden, and try to choose natural fibers when possible as synthetic fabrics and furnishings contain harmful chemicals.
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