MARTINSVILLE – Diabetes is a killer.
Having the chronic illness is serious. But it can lead to other significant, and potentially deadly, health problems such as heart attacks, heart disease, cancer, stroke, blindness and organ failure, according to health professionals who spoke during a noncredit lecture at the New College Institute on Wednesday.
More people with diabetes will die of heart disease than the diabetes itself, said Andy Quinn, a nurse practitioner at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville who also is a diabetes educator.
The chances of someone with diabetes having a heart attack are “just astronomical,” he said.
Diabetes also can cause severe nerve damage.
“The blood flow to your nerves over time gets so bad that you just don’t feel things like other people do,” such as painful injuries like broken bones, Quinn said.
Basically, diabetes occurs when a person’s blood glucose (more commonly known as blood sugar) gets too high, he said.
A blood glucose level of 70 to 99 mg/dL is normal, he said. A level of 100 to 125 mg/dL after fasting is regarded as pre-diabetes, and a level of 126 mg/dL or higher on two separate tests indicates that a person has diabetes.
Symptoms of diabetes may include constant tiredness, frequent urination, sudden weight loss, always being hungry, blurry eyesight, vaginal infections, sexual intercourse problems and tingly hands and feet, Quinn said.
Anyone with those symptoms, or who is concerned they might have diabetes or get it, should consult a doctor.
The best ways to prevent diabetes, the speakers said, are to get regular exercise, control your weight and lose some if necessary, as well as eat nutritious meals.
“A person (who is overweight) can cut their risk for diabetes in half” by losing 5 percent to 7 percent of their weight and exercising for 150 minutes – 30 minutes over five days – per week, said Barbara Watson, the West Piedmont Health District’s healthy communities coordinator. The district runs the local health department.
Exercising can be as simple as walking a mile or so regularly. Even walking to the mailbox and back helps.
According to the American Heart Association, “walking is the single, No. 1 best thing you can do for your health,” said Rachel Werkheiser, the hospital’s registered dietician and clinical nutrition manager.
A person with a “body mass index” – weight-to-height ratio – of 25 to 29 is considered to be overweight, Watson said. Someone with an index of 30 or higher is considered to be obese, she said.
Nationwide, one in three adults and one in five children and teenagers are obese. Childhood obesity has doubled, while obesity among adolescents has tripled, in the past 30 years, Watson said.
“Obesity basically is classified as a disease,” Quinn emphasized.
Everyone with diabetes should consult with a dietitian to develop a healthy meal plan, Werkheiser said. Because everyone has different eating habits, what works for one person may not work for another, she indicated.
However, everyone should eat healthily.
In terms of preventing illness or trying to get over it, “food is just as important as medicine,” Werkheiser said.
Werkheiser emphasized eating three meals a day, at least four to six hours apart. By eating regular meals, a person is less likely to eat too much at any particular meal, she said.
The body is designed to accommodate regular meals, she noted.
“Skipping meals puts your body in a semi-starvation state” and contributes to weight gain, Werkheiser said, because “the body is trying to hold onto every single calorie it gets.”
To create healthy meals, Werkheiser suggests filling half of a typical plate nine inches in diameter with less-starchy foods such as carrots, broccoli, leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and/or fresh, frozen or canned fruit without extra sugar.
One-fourth of the plate can contain starchier foods such as potatoes and corn and/or some type of whole grain bread. The other fourth should have protein-rich foods such as unprocessed fish, turkey and chicken, beans and/or eggs, according to Werkheiser.
Yes, eggs. Nutritionists don’t regard them as being unhealthy anymore, she said.
“They’re very low in saturated fat,” Werkheiser said. “Two eggs in the morning is completely appropriate.”
Just don’t overdo it, like eating six eggs a day, she said.
Don’t totally eliminate foods containing fat, Werkheiser advised. Eating some is necessary, she said, because fat provides vitamins A, D and E and helps the body absorb them.
Aim for healthier foods containing unsaturated fat, she said, such as vegetable and olive oils, nuts, nut butters, tuna, salmon and avocados.
Don’t often eat foods with high amounts of “trans fats,” such as muffins and other prepared bakery products, Werkheiser suggested.
And, limit foods and beverages with high amounts of carbohydrates and few nutritional benefits, such as white bread and rice, desserts and sugar-filled sodas, she said.
Other healthy-living tips that Werkheiser provided include not pursuing so-called “fad diets,” limiting sodium intake, getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night and reducing stress, or at least controlling it.
Watson mentioned various area programs intended to help people live healthier lives. They include the National Diabetes Prevention Program, in which the hospital participates; Virginia Cooperative Extension’s “Healthy Eating on a Budget” program, weight loss support programs such as Taking Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS) and classes on monitoring blood pressure sponsored by the Bassett Family Practice.
Educational materials on healthy lifestyles are available at local libraries, she said.
Becoming educated about diseases and healthy living is important, Watson believes.
“People need to take charge of their health care,” she said, by trying to keep from getting sick instead of just seeking medical care when they become ill.
Mickey Powell reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.