Within hours of learning he had developed Type 2 diabetes, Martie Neugent bought a bicycle.
He’d been given two choices – either constant visits to the pharmacy for a cocktail of medications that would control his symptoms, or make a handful of lifestyle changes that could erase symptoms and put his disease into remission.
He didn’t want to be tied to medications, so he fought back with exercise, one of the most effective tools for controlling diabetes, doctors say.
In fact, exercise can be one of the best ways to control blood glucose levels if done regularly, and diet can be even more important than exercise.
Need proof? A few months after his initial diagnosis, thanks to a renewed focus on exercise and a diligent diet that focused on low-glycemic index foods, Neugent was able to drop nearly 100 pounds and put his diabetes completely into remission. Today, he lives a healthy life virtually free of any symptoms of diabetes.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that causes the body to have trouble producing insulin, or in the case of Type 2 diabetes, is primarily a result of insulin resistance rather than the body not producing enough. Insulin is a hormone vital to turning the food we eat into fuel and allowing us to use it efficiently. For those who have diabetes, it can lead to high blood glucose levels that if not controlled can potentially damage nerves, causing tingling, numbness or pain in fingers and toes, damage to the kidneys so that they can no longer eliminate poisons from the body and lead to cardiovascular disease, blindness and even amputation.
There are two basic types, type 1, which means the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin, and Type 2, which means the body can’t effectively use the insulin it produces. A third type, gestational diabetes, is caused by hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, and leads to high blood sugar that usually disappears after childbirth.
According to the World Health Organization, 347 million people worldwide have diabetes, and as obesity levels rise, Type 2 especially has become more of a risk, especially for children. WHO estimates that by 2030, diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death, particularly in low and middle income nations.
If numbers are not reduced, the disease has the potential to strain the world’s health care system to the point of breaking.
That’s why on Nov. 14, millions of people around the world will unite to mark World Diabetes Day, a global awareness campaign designed to not only raise awareness of the disease, but also to encourage those at risk to make lifestyle changes that could prevent it.
But understand that even though the impact of diabetes can be severe, a diagnosis can potentially be less of a death sentence than an opportunity to transform your life through smarter, healthier choices.
“Diabetes saved my life,” said Neugent, who continues his life as an avid cyclist and rides regularly to keep symptoms under control, and recently completed a week-long, 500-mile trek across North Carolina.
He says without his diagnosis, he may not have made the lifestyle changes he needed, and could have remained trapped in a body that was sick, tired and unhealthy.
Neugent is hardly alone. Many others with Type 2 try to control their diabetes either partially or fully with exercise and diet, which most doctors agree is important when it comes to keeping symptoms under control.
Benefits of exercise
Exercise helps ease the symptoms of diabetes in numerous ways. Not only can it help your body better use the insulin made by the pancreas, it can also help burn excess body fat and reduce weight, which can assist with improved insulin sensitivity, improved muscle strength and bone density. It can also lead to lower blood pressure, support healthy cholesterol levels, improved blood circulation and lowered stress.
According to researchers, working out longer and harder is especially beneficial for those with diabetes, leading to lower A1c levels – a test that measures blood sugar levels over the course of a few months – and improvements when it comes to blood sugar control.
They suggest a mix of cardio for heart health – walking, hiking, biking, running or swimming are good choices – along with strength training – free weights, floor exercises, resistance bands - to build muscles and give metabolism a boost.
In a study comparing numbers for those who didn’t exercise to those who did, the results were staggering, researchers said.
“To envision the importance of exercise, imagine an inexpensive pill that could decrease the hemoglobin A1C value by 1 percentage point,” wrote Dr. William Kraus of Duke University Medical Center and Dr. Benjamin Levine of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “Diabetes experts would be quick to incorporate this pill into practice guidelines and performance measures for diabetes.”
And when combining exercise with a healthy diet plan – a move that usually comes naturally when athletes realize how much better they perform when fueled properly - there’s no reason for someone diagnosed with diabetes to expect anything other than living a long, healthy life.
Glycemic index: How low can you go?
For those with diabetes, eating foods low on the glycemic index – which have the least impact on blood sugar – is the smartest way to keep blood glucose levels from becoming elevated, which puts stress on the organs.
Glucose, in simple terms, is a simple sugar that gives us the energy we need for every activity, from getting out of bed to reading this article to driving to work every day.
It comes mainly from carbohydrates, which are converted into glucose during the digestive process. With an assist from insulin, it is absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body, providing energy to the cells and organs.
High-carb foods – refined, processed foods, sugary foods, etc. – tend to convert quickly, sending blood sugar soaring. While you might feel temporarily all-powerful, the body can only use so much glucose at a time, so energy levels soon plummet, requiring you to eat more food to recover from the crash.
By the numbers
Foods that are slower to be digested fall on the low end of the glycemic index, which measures how quickly foods are converted into blood glucose on a scale of 1 to 100. (Pure sugar is 100, while cabbage, along with other veggies including broccoli, lettuce, mushrooms and onions, are at the low end of the scale, around 10.)
The glycemic index was initially designed by Dr. David Jenkins of Toronto University as a way for those with diabetes to determine how quickly a food would cause their blood sugar to rise. That allowed diabetic patients to choose foods that would keep their blood sugar levels stable, the best way to lessen the amount of damage the disease might do to the body.
While not an exact science – foods react differently in every person’s body – it does offer an imperfect measurement of the speed at which carbohydrate-rich foods are digested, giving those with diabetes an idea of what foods will have the most potential for elevating blood glucose levels.
It can also help those who don’t have diabetes prevent putting themselves at risk of the disease, so it’s worth a closer look, especially for those who have a family history of diabetes or are overweight, a big risk factor.
High or low on the glycemic index
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein (which has no impact on blood glucose levels) and whole grains is not only a smart way to avoid diabetes; it is also a good way to slow the progression of the disease.
Foods that fall on the low end of the glycemic index have the least impact on blood glucose levels, and should make up the bulk of your diet plan. Food items on the higher end of the scale should be eaten in moderation.
Low GI (55 or less): Beans (black, kidney, lentils, soybeans, garbanzo beans, pintos), nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts), seeds (sunflower seeds, flax, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds), most vegetables, most fruits.
Medium GI (56 to 69): Dairy products, raisins, bananas, corn, beets, pineapple, prunes
High GI (70 and above): White bread, most white rice, many processed cereals, potatoes, pretzels, bagels, watermelon, dates
Diabetes: The essentials
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, remember that it can be seen as an opportunity, especially if you haven’t been living as healthily as you could, rather than an end to life as you know it.
Those who follow a healthy diet and exercise program not only have more energy, they feel better and they live longer, so you’ll be doing yourself a big favor. And living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to mean being deprived.
Just a few small changes can get you started on a path to health and wellness that you’ll appreciate for a lifetime.