Body & Fitness

The lowdown on diabetes

Find out everything you need to know about a condition that affects thousands of Kiwis.
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As many as 250,000 New Zealanders may have diabetes and some of them might not even realise they have it.

While most of us have some understanding of the condition, it’s important to be totally across it so we can do as much as we can to prevent it, or know how to manage it if a loved one is diagnosed.

Dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell helps to explain the basics.

What is diabetes?

The condition occurs when the body can’t maintain healthy levels of glucose in the blood. Glucose is a form of sugar that acts as an energy source for the body.

Converting glucose into this energy is the job of a hormone called insulin. People with diabetes are lacking sufficient amounts of insulin for this conversion, which means the glucose stays in the bloodstream, increasing their blood glucose levels. This is referred to as glycaemia.

What are the different types?

There are three types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.

“In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the pancreas so insulin is not produced,” explains Susie. “Type 2 occurs when the efficiency of insulin reduces over time, to a point where medical intervention is required via oral medication or injected insulin for glucose to be processed.”

Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and is diagnosed when a woman’s blood glucose levels become higher than normal. After the baby’s birth, most people will be rid of the condition, but it is possible to still have high blood glucose levels and a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Is it genetic?

“It can be, both for type 1 and 2,” says Susie. “But type 2 can also be induced over time as a result of weight gain, a high-carb diet and a lack of physical activity.”

How is it managed?

Susie advises that lifestyle changes are extremely important when it comes to managing type 2 diabetes.

“It requires constant attention, often significant weight loss, a low-carb diet and lots of movement, and exercise,” she says. In some cases, type 2 diabetes can be reversed.

There are also regular blood glucose monitoring tests, done through finger prick readers or with your GP.

In some cases, insulin medication may be prescribed as tablets or injections, but this doesn’t replace healthy eating and exercise, which is required in conjunction with any treatment.

Type 1 diabetes is a life-threatening condition that must be managed with insulin injections (up to six a day) or an insulin pump. Those with type 1 must also exercise, follow a healthy eating plan and monitor their blood glucose levels regularly.

Is it preventable?

Type 1 diabetes unfortunately cannot be prevented.

It is possible to prevent type 2 by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, opting for a nutritious diet, managing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and not smoking.

Glucose tolerance tests can also help, as they “identify if insulin resistance or impaired glucose tolerance is present,” says Susie.

“This is a sign you will get diabetes within 10 years and it’s a prompt to get serious about diet and exercise, and see a dietitian who specialises in insulin resistance and pre-diabetes.”

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