Type II Diabetes: the avoidable epidemic

November 2014
By Angela Nunnery, M.D., Board Certified Family Physician

Concern over the spread of the Ebola virus may be causing a worldwide panic, but there is a dangerous disorder that has reached real epidemic proportion that is far more likely to impact the health and vitality of Americans.

In 2012, the U.S. Center for Disease Control estimated that 29.1 million Americans, 9.3 percent of the population, had diabetes − up from 25.8 million or 8.3 percent of the population two years earlier. Officials estimate that some five million people died from diabetes related disorders in 2013 worldwide.

The problem is not isolated. The Houston Chapter of the American Diabetes Association estimates more than 400,000 people in the greater Houston area have some form of diabetes − half of them are undiagnosed and are not aware of their condition.

Type II diabetes, which accounts for a majority of patients afflicted with diabetes, is often a result of poor lifestyle choices. A poor diet and lack of exercise are factors than can lead to stroke, heart attack, kidney failure or other serious medical conditions.

Food is the fuel that our bodies need to grow and function properly. A portion of what we eat is broken down into sugars that travel throughout the body to provide energy. As blood sugar levels elevate, healthy bodies create insulin from the pancreas to keep blood sugar levels in balance.

Processed foods found in fast food and prepared fare contain an abundance of sugar. Over time, over indulgence can lead to diminished functionality of the body’s ability to produce and utilize insulin. This is especially true of children. The CDC estimates that childhood obesity has doubling children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese − the result of too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed.

While a thorough examination by a physician is recommended to confirm an individual’s medical condition, symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst and hunger, frequent urination, fatigue, numbness or tingling in the feet or hands, irritability or wounds that won’t heal.

A simple blood test can reveal if, and to what degree of diabetes an individual is afflicted. A fasting glucose level greater than 126, hemoglobin A 1C of greater than 6.5 or a random glucose level greater than 200 are signs for concern.

In some case the physician will recommend medications as part of a treatment program. In others proper diet and exercise may be sufficient.

Patients often ask what they should eat. The new recommendation is to divide their dinner plate in half. On one side have non- starchy vegetables like carrots, spinach, lettuce, collard greens, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, bell peppers, egg plant or other favorites.

The other side of the plate can be divided again. One quarter of the plate is for protein such as fish, skinless chicken, turkey, lean cuts of beef or pork, low fat cheese, tofu, vegetarian meat substitutes, nuts or eggs. The remaining quarter is for starchy foods high in carbohydrates like whole grain breads, tortillas, high fiber cereal, low fat crackers, rice, potatoes, corn or pasta.

In addition, it is recommend an eight-ounce glass of low fat milk to drink − or a six-ounce yogurt. For dessert, enjoy your favorite fruit − fresh, frozen or canned in juice or light syrup.

The key is to focus on enjoying the healthy foods that are good for you − not the myriad of menu items that you know are not healthy choices. The body responds quickly and patients are surprised how much they come to enjoy a healthier diet. Splurge every once in a while, but develop a consistent pattern of healthier eating.

Add to this an exercise regimen of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and the body can be set on a new and healthier direction. Whether Type II diabetes can be reversed is debatable, but an improved diet and exercise regimen will be a step in the right direction toward a healthier life.