Nearly 26 million people in the US today (8.3%) have diabetes. Another 79 million (25%) have pre-diabetes meaning that if they do not make lifestyle changes, they will have diabetes eventually.
Everything we eat goes into the stomach, is mixed together and moves gradually into the small intestine where it is digested. Blood vessels surrounding the intestines receive the digested meal in the form of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbohydrate. The carbohydrate is glucose which we commonly refer to as blood sugar. This blood sugar is distributed by the blood stream to every cell in the body, some 100 trillion of them. Each cell depends on blood sugar for energy to do its job.
When we eat a balanced meal; meat, starch, vegetable and salad, the level of sugar in our blood gradually rises. As our cells use the sugar for energy, the level peaks and then falls and about four hours later we eat another meal.
But of course sometimes we don’t eat balanced meals. When we consume more calories than we burn, the body has to have a way to remove the extra blood sugar that rises in our blood. In fact, the body works very hard to keep all of the constituents in the blood within very narrow limits. So when we overeat, our pancreas secrets insulin to cause the cells to take in more sugar than usual and lower the blood sugar level. The problem arises when we overeat frequently over a long period of time. Eventually, our cells become immune to the effect of insulin and they refuse to take in any more sugar causing our blood sugar level to remain high. It’s almost like they are telling us, “Enough is enough.” This is called Type 2 Diabetes.
When we go several months with high blood sugar, we damage the very small blood vessels in our body. This shows up as numbness in our fingers or toes, or impaired vision where we have microscopic blood vessels that feed the eyes, or damage to our kidneys where tiny blood vessels filter our blood and regulate all the ingredients within very specific levels.
To lower our risk for Type 2 Diabetes, we need to achieve and maintain an appropriate weight for our height. And the best way to do this is to make small changes in what we eat and increase our activity. Start by limiting high calorie foods, sweets, sodas, fried foods, pastries, whole dairy products. Then start fine tuning by adding fiber foods such as vegetables, whole grains, and fresh fruits. Remember your goal is to not eat more than you will walk off today.
Increasing activity can be as simple as doing routine work around the house and yard or more structured such as going to the gym. The goal is to be active for 30 – 60 minutes on most days. Activity does more than burn calories. It tells our cells that we are going to use up some of this extra sugar and that they can start allowing our insulin to work again. This positive effect increases as we burn off stored fat.
The good news is that when we control our blood sugar we virtually eliminate all of the health problems associated with diabetes. And by achieving our ideal body weight, we are also reducing our risk for heart disease and cancer.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides individual and group education on diabetes, heart disease and stroke; monthly classes on healthy cooking; and monthly support groups in Lufkin and Livingston. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations where dietitian Tim Scallon teams up with Chef Manuel Marini to demonstrate how healthy eating can taste great. The show can be seen on the Memorial web site at http://www.memorialhealth.org. Call 639-7585 for more information.