Taking the Sweetness Out of Life

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More than three million African–Americans have diabetes–and half of them don’t even know it. Count Edward Lee, 62, among that number. When he began dropping pounds without trying a decade ago, his wife convinced him to go to the doctor. "She knew something was wrong," he says. "I didn’t have any idea that was a symptom of diabetes."

Lee, whose diabetes is diet controlled, was one of the lucky ones. Sadly, many people don’t find out they have the disease until they develop symptoms that can lead to serious complications–amputations, kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks and strokes. In fact, diabetes is the third leading cause of death in African–Americans, and it is 4 to 6 times more common in Blacks than whites.

Diabetes (sometimes called "sugar diabetes" in the Black community) develops when the pancreas does not make insulin––the hormone that controls blood sugar levels and helps sugar enter the cells where it is converted to energy––or does not use insulin correctly.

There are two types of diabetes:

  1. Type I is often referred to as "juvenile diabetes," but you do not have to be a child to develop it. A person who has this form does not make any insulin and must have insulin injections.
  2. Type II, the most common type, is sometimes called "adult–onset" diabetes, although kids and adults can both get it. This form usually does not require insulin injections in the early stages. People with this type make insulin but their bodies do not use it correctly. It is the predominant form among African–Americans, according to Dr. James Gavin, diabetes expert and senior scientific medical officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and it is clearly a genetic disease. If someone in your family has Type II diabetes, you are at risk, particularly if you are over 40 and overweight.

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • frequent urination, especially at night
  • excessive thirst
  • unexplained weight loss
  • increased hunger
  • slow healing infections, sores or wounds
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision

See your doctor if you have these symptoms, because other serious health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels, can occur in tandem with diabetes. In fact, heart attacks are the leading cause of death in diabetics. A blood test will indicate whether you have diabetes.

Diabetes often can be controlled by changing your diet–a difficult task for African–Americans who love to eat soul food like fried chicken, ham hocks and smoked pork. It isn’t necessary to give up these favorite foods completely, says dietician Roniece Weaver, whose book, The Soul Food Cookbook (American Dietary Council), outlines heart–healthy ways of cooking.

Some of Weaver’s recommendations for healthy nutrition include:

  • eating three or more small meals a day
  • choosing low–fat alternatives to sweets such as fruits
  • not skipping breakfast
  • cutting down on fats
  • eating dessert as part of a meal, not separately

Diabetes often also can be controlled without medications by making lifestyle changes:

  • revamp eating habits
  • learn to control portions
  • cut fat
  • increase carbohydrates
  • limit refined sugar and salt
  • read food labels
  • reward yourself with non–food items
  • lose weight if needed
  • exercise regularly
  • lower stress levels

To help African–Americans conquer this devastating disease, Dr. Gavin is spearheading a national public awareness campaign. For more information, call the diabetes hotline, 1–800–342–3283.

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