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What is diabetes?

What is diabetes?  How can you reduce your risk of diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease and unfortunately its prevalence in the community, from young to old is increasing.

I know some of you may find the topic confronting, however as a nutritionist and health coach I know when I am working with clients helping and supporting them to improve and effectively manage symptoms associated with diabetes, I cannot help reflect on how I would have dearly loved the opportunity to work with them earlier to help prevent or reduce their risk of developing the disease.

Read on to gain a greater understanding of this disease which is having a devastating impact on too many lives.

I answer key and essential questions including what are the key health strategies you can adopt to reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic health condition. It is a condition that undermines the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels (what many commonly refer to as blood sugar levels). But what does this really mean?

  • Just like a car needs petrol our body needs a source of fuel, we call this glucose. When we eat food our body extracts glucose from our food, it then uses this glucose as a fuel source to power our energy systems.
  • When the body converts food to glucose it initially releases the glucose into our blood. Our pancreas then releases a hormone called insulin which sends a signal to our cells to take the glucose from our blood and use it for fuelling our energy systems now or store it for later use.
  • In people with diabetes, problems arise with insulin, either insulin is no longer produced or it is not produced in sufficient amounts by the body.
  • What this means is that when people with diabetes eat foods rich in glucose (think breads, cereals, fruit and starchy vegetables, legumes, milk, yoghurt and sweets) the glucose is not taken out of the blood because the insulin messaging system fails or does not work properly.
  • Instead the glucose stays in the blood. This causes elevated blood glucose levels (also called elevated blood sugar levels). In technical terms we call this state hyperglycaemia (in effect high blood glucose/sugar levels).
  • This is a significant health issues, as if the glucose, the fuel for your energy systems is in your blood it cannot be used by the body to power our energy systems. Each cell in our body has its own energy systems and relies on glucose as fuel to undertake the metabolic processes we need to live healthy lives.

How many people have diabetes?

In 2012 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report on Australian Health they indicated 4.2% of Australians now have diabetes, an increase of 1.5% since 1989. I am sure you will agree it is a disturbing upward trend. What I consider worse is that this increase is impacting all segments of our community from the young to the elderly.

Are there different types of diabetes?

There are two types of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes:

  • In this condition the pancreas stops making insulin so the body does not have glucose available to fuel its energy systems. Instead the body tries to burn fat. Although this may sound good, it is not.
  • As a result of the body using fat as its fuel source the body can go into a condition called ketoacidosis where dangerous chemical substances are released into the blood from the burning of fat. The condition is potentially life threatening.
  • Type 1 diabetes is typically found in those less than 30 years, but it can occur at any age.
  • Approximately 10-15% of all cases of diabetes are type 1.

Type 2 diabetes:

  • 85-90% of all people with diabetes have type-2. It generally affects older adults however it is now affecting younger people, even children.
  • In type-2 the pancreas does make some insulin but not enough to meet the body’s needs.
  • It was previously called a lifestyle disease, however we know the cause is a blend of genetic and environmental (including lifestyle) factors.
  • Although there is a strong genetic predisposition, the risk of developing type-2 is greatly increased when it is coupled with lifestyle factors such as high blood pressure, overweight or obesity, insufficient physical activity, poor diet and the classic ‘apple shape’ body where extra weight is carried around the waist.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are the same for both types. However in type 1 they may come on suddenly whilst in type-2 they may develop over time. Symptoms may include:

  • Being excessively thirsty and urinating more frequently.
  • Because your body is not able to effectively fuel its energy systems you can feel tired and lethargic, feel constantly hungry and you generally put weight on over time.
  • As immunity can be impaired, you may have cuts that heal slowly, itching and skin infections.
  • You may also experience blurred vision, mood swings, and headaches, feel dizzy and have leg cramps.

What is the cure for diabetes?

  • Unfortunately there is no cure for diabetes.
  • Once you are diagnosed it is lifelong condition that needs to be managed carefully by those who have it.
  • The best strategy is prevention, to avoid developing diabetes.

How do I know if I have it?

  • If you have concerns as to whether you have or at risk of diabetes it is important to see your Medical Practitioner. There are a range of tests they can do to understand your risk and/or whether you have it.

How do I manage diabetes if diagnosed?

  • People with type 1 need daily injections of insulin. They also need to test and monitor their blood glucose levels several times daily.
  • In the initial stages type-2-diabetes can generally be managed effectively with adopting healthy eating and regular physical activity.
  • For those with type-2 over time there can be a natural progression of the disease so these people may also require medication and insulin in the longer term.

How do you prevent diabetes?

The exact causes of type-1 are unknown. However it is estimated that up to 60% of type-2-diabetes can be prevented. The best way to reduce your risk of developing diabetes, particularly type-2-diabetes is to adopt a number of health strategies including:

  1. Eating a healthy diet
  2. Being active, including regular organised or incidental (day-today) physical activity
  3. Managing other factors associated with increased risk of type-2-diabetes such as weight, blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and by not smoking.

Can we as Australians do more to improve our health?

Australians can do more. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics indicates:

  • Approx. 50% of people 14yrs+ eat the recommended 2 serves of fruit each day.
  • Approx. one in 10 aged 14yrs+ eat the recommended 5 serve of veg each day.
  • 38% of Australians aged 15yrs+ are not sufficiently active.
  • And as recent as 2010, 1 in 7 people aged 14yrs+ still smoked daily.

I encourage you to empower and enable your health, to help reduce your risk of developing type-2 diabetes by seeking to make consistently good choices in your diet and lifestyle.

How do I make healthy diet and lifestyle choices?

As a nutritionist and health coach I work with medical specialists treating and managing diabetes in our community.  If you need help I encourage you to make an appointment with myself or a similar health practitioner to assess your current diet and lifestyle with a view to creating a personalised plan focussed on making changes to ensure your diet and lifestyle choices are healthy and balanced.

ciao Jan