In 2018, the African American population was 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than Caucasians. The following year, they were over twice as likely to be hospitalized with diabetes-related illnesses and complications. Black men are much more likely to die of the disease than black women or any non-Hispinic white person with Type 2 diabetes. While there are many reasons black Americans are more susceptible to diabetes, there is much that can be done to help prevent it.
It’s important to keep in mind that diabetes is a risk factor for other severe health problems like heart disease, kidney failure, and high blood pressure. It is vital to prevent it if at all possible, especially if you have increased risk due to family history or other related serious health problems.
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
Insulin is a hormone that helps your body use the sugars you eat as energy. Type 2 diabetes results in insulin resistance, meanin your cells don’t respond to insulin as they should. When insulin resistance starts to occur, your pancreas produces insulin and responds by producing more of it. This works for a little while, but eventually, you won’t have enough insulin to metabolize all the sugars you eat. Sugars that aren’t metabolized into energy will cause your blood sugar level, also called blood glucose level, to rise. Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy and needs to be managed carefully, as high blood glucose can affect the health of both mom and baby.
High blood glucose will lead to other health problems over time, like heart disease or kidney disease, so it’s important to manage the condition closely with your healthcare provider. Better yet, you should take steps to prevent diabetes, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes.
Can You Prevent It?
Assess Your Health and Habits
The first step to making positive change that will help you prevent diabetes is to assess your current health and related habits. Do you usually drink a lot of soda, or do you prefer water? Are you primarily sedentary, or is physical activity part of your routine? Are you already at higher risk due to your family history? You may need to modify your lifestyle. Take some time to think about your current health problems and why it’s essential to adjust your habits to better match your health goals. You’ll find your inspiration and motivation to make lasting changes from here.
Get Enough Rest
Poor sleep can result in higher blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes. While research studies are still underway to find just how sleep can and can’t impact glucose and how the body processes sugar, we already know several critical ways in which it does. The first is that cortisol levels increase with even mild sleep deprivation. High cortisol levels are linked with increased blood glucose. Sleep deprivation can also increase insulin resistance, making it harder for your body to process sugars. When sleep deprivation becomes chronic, so can insulin resistance. Cortisol levels can even be impacted by the time of day you sleep.
You don’t need to lose out on much sleep for your body (and blood sugar) to start feeling the effects. Oxidative stress within the body begins to damage your cells and affects how they function. Your glucose levels will rise as you feel more overwhelmed throughout the day because you are tired. You may even feel like you need an extra latte or an energy drink to help you get through the afternoon, which will increase blood glucose. It is our body’s natural response and also our habits that contribute to poor health. Getting a good night’s sleep every night helps restore our energy for the next day and maintains good health overall.
Create a Nutrition Plan
It can be hard to plan meals you enjoy, especially if you have to cut out favorite foods and recipes you love. However, once you find new, healthier options that you crave just as much, it won’t be as hard to head to the dinner table. It may be tempting to follow a diet you found on social media or a subscription box service that offers “everything you need.” However, many of these diets lead to weight fluctuation, rarely include foods that meet your dietary needs, and might not even have things you enjoy eating. Your best bet is to follow the guidelines below and create your own menu.
- Portion Sizes: Johns Hopkins recommends more than half of every meal include non-starchy vegetables, a quarter each of lean protein like chicken or fish, and healthy carbs like whole grains.
- High Fiber Intake: You should include 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. High-fiber foods include some types of nuts, fruits, and berries. Try a popcorn snack if you’re a little shy of your goal for the day!
- Reduce Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: Switch your soda for flavored water, eat fresh instead of canned fruit, eat smaller portions of sweets, or try a sweetener alternative. There are many ways to reduce refined sugar, and you might lower your risk of heart disease.
Start Moving (Even if You Start Slow)
Physical inactivity can lead to high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poor blood circulation resulting in dilated blood vessels. According to the American Diabetes Association, the “magic number” is 150 minutes of exercise weekly. This might seem like a considerable number, but by breaking it down and including fun activities, especially with others, you can get through it much easier than you think. For example, when you get to work, why not walk around the building once or twice before heading inside to your desk? Or what about walking with your co-workers during lunch? Playing with the kids after school counts, and so does a class at the gym where you’ll meet other exercise-minded individuals. If you can’t start with 150 minutes, that’s okay. Start where you are comfortable and aim to add 10-15 minutes each week. Once you do, you’ll see healthier blood glucose levels.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
You’ll most likely start losing weight with plenty of rest, good food, and regular activity. Being overweight or obese puts you at increased risk, and losing even a few pounds can significantly affect how you feel every day, both physically and mentally. Studies have shown that African American women are typically heavier than white women and have a harder time maintaining weight loss. If you are struggling, it’s not just you, but it is worth the effort. Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider for recommendations. They may suggest dietary changes or a local weight loss support group.
Quit Smoking (You Have Help)
The FDA reports that those who smoke are 30-40% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. Smoking makes insulin less effective. If your body is already struggling with insulin resistance, smoking can worsen the problem and cause diabetes, even if you work hard to lessen other risk factors. Nicotine causes oxidative stress, damaging your cells like sleep deprivation does. Because nicotine is a stimulant, it may keep you from getting restful sleep, compounding the effects of stress and worsening the problem. Quitting smoking can reduce your risk of developing many other health problems, including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and stroke. If you are a smoker and need help quitting, talk to your healthcare provider, visit the CDC’s free resource page, or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Drink in Moderation
Drinking alcohol could help lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It’s also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and other health problems in the black population. However, it should be in moderation and limited to one serving per day for women and two for men. Higher alcohol intake, especially binge drinking, drastically increases your risk of both and can lead to additional health problems such as alcohol use disorder, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, and more.
Find Support (It’s Everywhere!)
Many black people in similar situations need support as well. Whether you need accountability for losing weight, a new fitness class to make “150” a lot more fun, free resources to help you stop smoking, or help from your doctor to find out why you have trouble sleeping, there is support for you along the way to a healthy lifestyle and preventing diabetes. The first step is deciding what you need help with. If you’re unsure where to find support, start with family, friends, or healthcare providers. Chances are, someone can point you in the right direction.
Join the “Lifestyle Change Program”
If you aren’t finding the support you need or need a little more guidance, try the Lifestyle Change Program. This educational program is recognized by the CDC and walks you through how to assess your current habits, create a nutrition plan that works for you, including physical activity every week, deal with stress, lose weight, and even get back on track if you’ve gotten thrown off. The lifestyle coach can adapt each session to meet the cultural needs of the group, including suggestions for meals that match your ethnic background, especially during holidays. They can even offer resources on local events that match your interests and social needs. You may meet other African Americans with similar interests that become accountability partners and friends, helping each other stay healthy long after the group ends.
Preventing Type 2 Diabetes May Be Possible. Why Not Try?
Black racial groups are disproportionately affected by diabetes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to prevent it, especially if you are at higher risk of insulin resistance due to family history. Consult your healthcare provider for guidance if you’ve already been diagnosed with prediabetes because of your blood sugar levels. However, following a healthier lifestyle is just one way in which black people can combat not only diabetes but the many associated health problems like kidney failure, nerve damage, and vascular diseases. Are you ready to make healthy changes?