Defeat Diabetes Month, sponsored by the Defeat Diabetes Foundation, is targeted towards raising awareness and improving education around diabetes every April. The main points that the foundation wants to educate the public on are diabetes prevention, management, and sustainable solutions. This blog aims to conquer diabetes prevention by educating on diabetes signs and symptoms and how to recognize them, and then how to make sustainable lifestyle changes that will help with the prevention and onset of the disease.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects the endocrine system and the pancreas. There are three types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational. Type 1 diabetes is determined by genetics and is an autoimmune disease where the body stops producing the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for regulating blood sugar by up-taking sugar and carbohydrates that you eat from foods into the cells. Once in the cells, the sugar is then used to produce energy for the body. Without insulin, sugar cannot be broken down and used for energy. When someone has type 1 diabetes, because their body doesn’t create insulin, they must get it exogenously through insulin shots. Type 2 diabetes is usually brought on by a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise. A lack of proper lifestyle management causes your body to become insulin resistant and so blood sugar becomes elevated because insulin isn’t doing its job properly. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and usually goes away after the baby is born. It is caused by changes in hormone levels that occur with pregnancy, making it harder for the body to process blood sugar efficiently, leading to elevated blood sugar levels. Because type 2 diabetes is caused by poor management of diet and exercise, we will focus on this type of diabetes for the purpose of this blog.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes often develop slowly, so it is sometimes hard to notice them as a developing issue. Some people live with type 2 for years and do not know it because it is hard to recognize. Signs and symptoms include:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased hunger
- Unintended weight loss
- Blurred vision
- Slow healing sores or wounds
- Frequent infections
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
These are symptoms that can be associated with other metabolic disorders as well, so it can be challenging to pinpoint them as diabetes. It is important to talk with your primary healthcare physician if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. If you are already at risk for developing diabetes because a family member has been diagnosed, or you have certain related conditions, then it is important that you start changing lifestyle behaviors to help prevent diabetes. If your doctor has determined that you have pre-diabetes, then it is very important that you start changing your lifestyle to prevent the onset of diabetes.
Lifestyle change: Diet
A lack of exercise and poor diet control can contribute to the onset of diabetes. By making changes to diet and exercise, you can reduce the risk of diabetes onset. The best way to see a difference in blood sugars quickly is through diet changes because the effect on blood sugar happens immediately.
Carbohydrates, which are a macronutrient and the major source of energy for the body, is the nutrient that needs to be carefully monitored with diabetes. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is a type of sugar, which then raises the level of glucose in your blood. In someone with diabetes, when there isn’t enough of the insulin hormone to cover the amount of sugar in your blood, that is when high blood sugar occurs and can be harmful towards your long term health. When managing diabetes, the amount of carbohydrates you eat is directly related to your blood sugar levels, that is why diet is so important. But what can you do about this? The answer is carbohydrate counting. Just like you count calories when you are trying to lose weight, you will want to count carbohydrates when you are trying to manage blood sugar.
Carbohydrate counting is the method of counting carbohydrates for every meal and every snack throughout your day and keeping that number consistent from meal to meal and then from day to day. The number of carbohydrates you need depends on a variety of factors, and you should talk to a dietitian or primary healthcare provider to determine how many calories you should be eating daily. For most people with diabetes, keeping carbohydrates under 50% of their daily calorie needs is a good start. For example, for someone who needs 2,000 calories, that means that 1,000 calories should be coming from carbohydrates. Since 1 gram of carbohydrates is equal to 4 calories, that means that this individual would be aiming to eat no more than 250 grams of carbohydrates a day. The key is to space out and eat your carbohydrates consistently throughout the day so that your body and the insulin it needs can respond in a productive way. For example, if you can have 250 grams a day, that means that you should be eating roughly 83 grams for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You might be wondering how you are supposed to count these carbohydrates and where you are going to get the grams of carbohydrates for the foods you are eating. The answer – by reading food labels and doing some research. Food labels are required to be on every single packaged good, and the carbohydrate grams are listed in bold on each label. The key to making sure you are counting the correct amount of carbohydrates is by checking the serving size and confirming the amount that you are actually eating. Add up every single ingredient or food you are having in a single meal to determine the total amount of carbohydrate you are eating. This number should be under your allotted meal carbohydrate amount. For foods that don’t have a label like fruits and starches a good rule of thumb is that for every serving there is about 15 grams of carbohydrates. Vegetables don’t have a lot of carbohydrates, so you can eat more of them. Two or three servings of vegetables usually have about 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Lifestyle change: exercise
Exercise is another way to positively impact blood sugar levels and diabetes. By getting more exercise daily, your body is using that excess sugar in your blood for fuel – helping to regulate blood sugar levels. In addition, exercise boosts your body’s sensitivity to insulin, countering insulin resistance seen in type 2 diabetes. All exercise is beneficial, but it has been found that combining resistance training with aerobic exercise is the most beneficial to overall health and diabetes management.
Resistance training involves the performance of physical exercises that are designed to improve strength and endurance. These include weights, resistance bands, isometrics, and plyometrics. The recommendation for resistance training is at least two times a week for at least 30 minutes. If you are a well-seasoned athlete or have been resistance training for some time, more might be needed to maintain or improve muscle strength. Aerobic exercise is any type of cardiovascular conditioning. This includes activities like running, walking, biking, swimming, dancing, tennis, basketball, etc. Any exercise that gets your heart rate up and where you are breathing heavier is an aerobic exercise. The recommendation is to get at least three days a week of 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise.
Putting it all together
By combining carbohydrate counting, resistance training, and aerobic activity, you are making lifestyle changes that your body and your blood sugar will thank you for. Your body will start to improve its sensitivity to insulin, providing you the opportunity to reduce your risk to develop type 2 diabetes, or prevent yourself from needing medications to control blood sugar if you already have the diabetes. These lifestyle changes are not only good for diabetes management, but they improve your overall health and wellbeing and improve your quality of life.
- Kasper DL, et al., eds. Diabetes mellitus: Diagnosis, classification, and pathophysiology. In: Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 19th ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2015.
- Ferri FF. Diabetes mellitus. In: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2018. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2018. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- Diabetes and Pregnancy: Gestational diabetes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/diabetes-gestational.html. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- Preventing diabetes problems. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/all-content. Accessed April 13, 2022.