A diabetes diagnosis in the family signals the start of practical lifestyle changes. How well you come together as a family, will determine the positive impact on the well-being of your loved one with diabetes.
Registered dietician and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Ria Catsicas, has advice on how families can cope with a diabetes diagnosis in their inner circle.
Through good medical care, and education to empower effective self-management of the chronic and lifelong disease, potential complications can be prevented, says Catsicas.
There is no such thing as a diabetes ‘diet’
Diabetes is a chronic illness and includes three different classifications: immune-mediated diabetes mellitus (type 1), insulin-resistant diabetes mellitus (type 2) and gestational diabetes mellitus (which develops during pregnancy).
As the body is unable to regulate blood sugar levels, nutrition forms the cornerstone of diabetes treatment, says Catsicas. Exercise and medication cannot control blood glucose levels if the correct nutrition is not in place.
“To control weight and blood glucose levels optimally, it is important to know how much to eat, when to eat and why we eat. As diabetes is a chronic condition, it is not a diet to follow for a while and then return to the old eating habits. It is a way of eating to be followed as a lifestyle by the whole family.”
There is no such thing as a diabetes diet, therefore. “We all are individuals, and the eating plan will differ according to our age, gender, activity levels and the medication used.”
Catsicas suggests a visit to a registered dietician who can help develop an eating plan that takes into consideration your lifestyle, budget, culture and food preferences. “Comprehensive nutrition education on how all foods affect blood glucose levels, and an individual eating plan, are the best ways to adopt healthy eating as a lifestyle for the whole family.”
What a family can do
If a family member has been diagnosed with diabetes, it is important that you support this member to achieve the following:
- Mitigate disappointment, despondence and disillusions. Diabetes is a disease for which you can control the outcome. “It is your decision how you choose to manage the condition.”
- Education. Obtain as much information as possible from health professionals on how to manage this disease. Armed with the right advice, you can manage blood glucose levels optimally to prevent complications, and you can lose weight in the case of the family member being overweight. “Even a 10 % weight loss can contribute to improving the condition and [to lessening] complications significantly. Both objectives can be achieved by following a healthy diet, by exercising on a regular basis and by taking the correct medication.”
- A strong mindset. Be careful not to adopt a victim mentality. It is possible to control this condition optimally. People with diabetes enjoy normal, happy lives. It is your choice how you choose to manage this condition.
It is important to support and encourage the family member to adopt a healthy lifestyle and changed habits.
Supporting your family through exercise:
Join him or her for regular brisk walking sessions. Catsicas suggests 30 minutes per day at least three times a week. “Exercise lowers blood glucose levels and contributes to your cells becoming more responsive to the action of insulin.”
Evidence also supports exercise as a way to lower appetite and as an excellent mood lifter. Start with 10-minute walks on weekends and build from there.
Supporting family through diet:
Changed eating habits can be like dominoes in the household of a diabetic, says Catsicas. The healthy eating principles people with diabetes should follow, are good for everyone and proved to lower your own risk for developing conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and cancer.
Catsicas suggests a balanced diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains such as wild brown rice, corn, whole grain breakfast cereals and heavy health breads, fish, legumes, lean meats, olive or canola oil, nuts and seeds. She also warns against processed foods high in flour and sugar. These principles are beneficial to all of us.
A family disease?
Diabetes is often called a “family disease” because it affects more people than just the person who is diagnosed when the patient is required to change old habits and adopt new ones.
But can you get it if one of your family members has the disease? Catsicas says like other diseases, genetically you do have a greater risk to develop diabetes if you have a family member with diabetes. “The good news, however, is that genetics contribute only 30 to 40% to the risk. The rest depends on how you decide to live your life with regard to health, meaning the lifestyle you decide to adopt.
“If you have a family member with diabetes, it does not necessarily mean you have to get diabetes too.”