Published on 07/14/08

Diabetes on the rise in U.S.

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

As diabetics, David and Susan Dowdy know what they eat directly affects their blood sugar levels and lives. To combat the disease, the Brunswick, Ga., couple eats more healthful and exercises more.

“Before, I ate chocolate cake, brownies and lots of ice cream,” he said. “Now I eat apples when I want a sweet snack.”

Since January, David has lost 25 pounds and his wife has lost 30. In addition to watching their diets, they take daily 30-minute walks. By dieting and exercising, he has been able to stay on oral medication and avoid insulin shots.

On the rise in U.S.

Like the Dowdys, 24 million Americans are afflicted with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2005, 3 million Americans have become diabetic. That’s an increase of 15 percent.

“Another 57 million people have abnormally high blood sugar levels that indicate prediabetes,” said Connie Crawley, a health and nutrition specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

“If the current trend continues, the CDC estimates that by 2030, 400 million people will have diabetes.”

Monitor blood sugar level

If a person’s fasting blood sugar level is 126 or more or is 200 or more nonfasting, that person is probably diabetic, she said. A fasting blood sugar level between 100 and 126 may indicate prediabetes.

The U.S. population has become more diverse and now includes more ethnic groups that are at greater risk for diabetes, she said, including American Indians and those from African, Asian or Latin descent.

The increase is also due to Americans being older, overweight and inactive.

Diabetes is common in Dowdy’s family. But despite the fact that it’s a hereditary condition, Crawley said it’s not inevitable.

Exercise and weight loss

If an at-risk, overweight person loses 7 percent of her body weight and begins exercising at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a day 5 days a week, her risk for diabetes is cut by 58 percent, according to the Diabetes Preventions Program. For overweight, at-risk adults over age 60, the risk is cut by 71 percent. The workouts can be split into three 10-minute exercise sessions.

“You don’t even need to get to an ideal body weight to see the benefits,” she said.

Decreasing the fat around the middle of the body is essential. Men whose waists are less than 40 inches and women whose waists are less than 35 inches are less likely to get diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Positive diet and exercise lifestyle changes are twice as effective as taking metformin, a drug known to control blood sugar, Crawley said.

“Fortunately, many people see their blood sugars improve even before they lose much weight, just by eating smaller portions of healthier foods and starting to move more,” she said.

To check your diabetes risk, take the risk test on the American Diabetes Association Web site Those at risk should have an annual blood glucose check by a doctor.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.