Being a successful manager of your type-2 diabetes can bring long-term health benefits, prevent serious diabetes complications and reduce the risk of numerous diseases.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that requires patients to take responsibility for managing their health. Keeping it under control requires major lifestyle modifications that can be difficult to sustain over time. The challenge may seem daunting, but there are specific actions and strategies that have been proven successful at keeping the disease under control. Here are four tips to help patients manage their type-2 diabetes for the long term.
1. Make diet a priority.
There are many elements to diabetes management — sleep quality, exercise frequency, glucose monitoring, medication compliance, environmental reinforcement of habit changes, social and family support, and more. But some of the most significant health benefits will come from adopting a healthier diet and making habit changes that endure.
The changes are not easy to make and sustain permanently, as many people have been eating an unhealthy diet for the past 30, 40 or 50 years before their diabetes diagnosis. That is one reason I recommend patients eat the type of the food they prefer (i.e. Thai, western, vegetarian), so the challenge will be to learn to make healthy choices within their preferred food group.
Effective diabetes management will require patients to stay within a recommended daily calorie range and take in the right balance of micronutrients and macronutrients. Macronutrients are the types of foods the body needs in large quantities, including protein, carbohydrates and fat, while micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are essential but in smaller quantities. I advise patients to eat more high-fiber foods — vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fruits. And whole foods are much better than food that has been processed and refined, which should be avoided.
Adhering to new eating habits becomes easier if you are able to cook at least some of your meals. Cooking affords much more control over what goes into your diet and whether it is prepared in the healthiest way. Many people find the activity of cooking helps relieve stress. Eating out comes with its own challenges, such as figuring out what ingredients are being used in specific dishes, how to avoid eating more total calories during a typical restaurant meal compared to a meal eaten at home, and resisting the tempting but unhealthy menu items in favor of better choices.
2. Draw on family for support.
Having a strong social support system, particularly from close family members, can have a significant positive impact on a person’s ability to manage their diabetes. For example, if the recently diagnosed father is the only diabetic in the family, the rest of the family can consider adopting the same lifestyle changes. Everyone in the household would agree to follow the new healthier diet, and by doing so, will make it easier to avoid temptation by keeping unhealthy items, such as salty snacks and sugary sweets, out of the house.
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I encourage those with diabetes and their families to incorporate new exercise and physical activity habits into their everyday family life, in order to make these habit changes more likely to “stick” and become permanent. The family of one of my patients decided to put exercise equipment in the living room at home in order to make it easier to adopt a new, healthier habit. They changed their previous family routine of watching television together into a family workout habit; they still have a socializing opportunity but the new routine is active rather than sedentary — and every member of the family can enjoy the health benefits from these lifestyle changes.
3. Focus on gradual change through sustained long-term effort.
The most effective approach to managing diabetes is to maintain a continuous, sustained effort so that lifestyle modifications become permanent. Besides habit changes in diet and exercise, successfully managing diabetes also requires effective scheduling and time management. Sugar control can be more difficult for people who do shift work (i.e. working at night), and sleep deprivation can affect sugar control as well. So patients who take active control over their time and schedule — even if that means switching from nighttime work to daytime hours — are more likely to maintain better long-term control of their diabetes.
Many patients are highly motivated to take control of managing their diabetes when first diagnosed. They put in a good deal of effort early on, when habit changes generate stronger results. But at some point the results come more slowly, weight loss becomes harder to achieve and motivation can decline, making it easy to slip back into old, unhealthy habits. Taking a long-term approach from the very beginning and being realistic about the nature of the challenge can help sustain motivation through difficult periods.
4. Exercise regularly and live actively.
Regular exercise is both helpful and important to keeping diabetes well-controlled. The benefits from exercising 150 minutes each week — i.e. an average of 30 minutes per workout 5 days a week — include better blood-sugar control, reduced body fat, weight control and improved insulin response. Exercise also relieves stress, boosts your mood and can reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke and cancer.
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Beyond making exercise a regular habit, look for ways to add more activity into various aspects of day-to-day living — take a daily walk during your lunch hour, park your car further away to add more walking to your commuting routine, and limit the time you spend on sedentary activities such as watching television and using digital devices.
Keeping your diabetes well-managed takes a lot of effort, but the future rewards can be well worth it. Achieving optimal health with diabetes can prevent many of the most common and serious diabetes complications. Effective management enables some patients to be taken off medication. And in some cases, the disease can be reversed. For a disease that can prove fatal to some, the rewards for successfully managing your diabetes are well worth pursuing.
By Dr. Chorthip N. Phattanasri
, U.S. board-certified specialist in Endocrinology and Internal Medicine, Bumrungrad International Hospital