Watch Your Back: Diabetes Creeps Up Everywhere, Especially in Texas

To most people, I’m a health food nut. I buy almost all my food and meals at Whole Foods, and have shopped at health food stores since my college days. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 40 years, and have never added sugar or salt to anything. Eating flour tortillas and white bread are as appealing to me as chewing on a wad of cotton. Although I owned a Spanish tapas bar, I pretty much stopped drinking alcohol (and soda) before I even reached today’s legal drinking age.

I attribute my dietary practices, or preferences, to the fact that I grew up in a diabetic household. All the breads and cookies baked at home were made with whole grains and were sweetened with crushed pineapple or bananas. Our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were made with 100 percent freshly ground peanuts and topped with 100 percent fruit spreads. My mother was a very educated diabetic whose article on her switching to insulin was published in the Diabetes Educator in 1979.

Yet, despite my mother’s conscientious monitoring of her blood sugar levels and her diet, diabetes killed her. This woman, who seemed to attend all the diabetes workshops available in my hometown, had a pain in her toe. She never went to the doctor for a diagnosis or treatment, who may have told her she had painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy, which now can be treated with oral meds. So, as is often the case with diabetics, gangrene set in. First a toe amputation. Then the leg. Then death. All within a week or so.

Just like my mother, I thought I knew everything and was sure I’d avoid its grasps. I get the fasting blood sugar test yearly, practice yoga and meditation daily (stress greatly elevates glucose levels) and I even moved toward a vegan diet, aware that in a closely monitored trial, those who were on a three-month low fat vegan diet had 59 percent lower glucose levels than those who followed the American Diabetes
Association recommended diet.

Earlier this month, I asked my doctor for the A1C blood test, rather than traditional fasting blood sugar. A1C monitors glucose levels over the prior three months and can be used to detect pre-diabetes which is not uncommon, but is extremely under diagnosed. It was a shock when the doctor’s office called me to say my A1C levels were high, labeling me pre-diabetic. I became one of the 57 million Americans that the American Diabetes Association, in 2007, estimated were pre-diabetic. I’m lucky. I know. Most don’t.

It’s not surprising that the rates of diabetes in Texas are as high as they are when you see how it’s common for Texans to load up their glasses and plates. According to the Texas Diabetes Council, 35 percent of Hispanic Texans over the age of 65 were diagnosed with diabetes compared to only 17 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the same age group. The mortality rates due to diabetes were also more than double among Hispanics in Texas than non-Hispanic whites.

There is no escape from your genetic makeup, but today’s diabetes research and development has
advanced to the degree that we can now detect diabetes before it causes harm, and we can arm
ourselves to stop it in its tracks, or at least create an obstacle course to slow it down. I consider if I hadn’t had the lifestyle I was following, I would certainly be on insulin, just as my mother was at my age. Now, I can keep my sugar levels from rising by avoiding foods that are high on the glycemic index; “healthy” fruits and vegetables like potatoes and watermelon are now on my “do not eat” list.

This year, the American Diabetes Association is asking: How will you Stop Diabetes®? The future is in your hands. Get yourself tested. Get your parents or abuelitos tested. If your results are in the normal range, it doesn’t mean you should sit back and down a six-pack with your puffy tacos and tres leches.
Cut your carbs. Downsize rather than supersize. And get physical.
(Deborah Charnes has worked as a bilingual communications specialist for 30 years.
Beyond the dedication to the dozens of award-winning PR and marketing campaigns she has directed in the U.S. and Latin America. She is a contributing author of two university public relations textbook and writes a travel blog. She moved to Texas in 1998 to join one of the nation’s leading Hispanic marketing communications agency.)