It is estimated that more than 20 million Americans have diabetes, the vast majority being type 2, which tends to occur in adults and is associated with being overweight. An additional 50 million people have pre-diabetes, which often leads to the disease.
Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and requires insulin injections. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy in women who are not diabetic.
In all types of diabetes, control of blood glucose through diet, exercise and medication is essential. Over time, high blood glucose levels can cause nerve and blood vessel damage leading to vision problems, lack of sensation in the hands and feet, kidney damage and poor wound healing.
In fact, diabetes is a leading cause of blindness, foot amputation and kidney dialysis and transplants. Diabetes is also a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Treatment involves regular blood glucose testing and proper use of medications prescribed by a physician. In addition, patients can play an important role through meal planning and regular exercise.
Exercise is important because it lowers blood glucose and can improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Exercise also has the added benefits of promoting weight loss and improving strength and fitness.
Diabetics should plan exercise around meals and medications and test blood glucose before exercise.
Exercise should include endurance, strength and flexibility and be a daily habit to gain the greatest benefits. Diabetics should wear comfortable, supportive shoes and socks and inspect feet carefully and treat sores to prevent infection.
Meal planning involves selecting healthy foods to help maintain consistent blood glucose levels while meeting energy needs for exercise and other activities. The diet should also promote weight loss and weight maintenance, especially for overweight patients. The diet should emphasize a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods and meat while minimizing the intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
Many diabetics are surprised to learn that both sugar and alternative sweeteners are safe when consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
Proper diet, regular exercise, blood glucose testing and proper medication can improve blood-glucose control, reduce the risk of other health problems and improve quality of life in diabetics. In those with pre-diabetes, these efforts can delay the progression to diabetes and may even result in a return to normal blood glucose.
Dr. Brian B. Parr is an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.