Diabetes is a serious, chronic illness. While experts continue to learn more about diabetes, the number of people that have the disease is increasing at an alarming rate. It’s known that genetics play an important part in the development of diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes. In addition, a significant portion of diabetes management is carried out by the person who has it and/or his family, making diabetes, in essence, a “family” disease.
On the positive side, taking care of yourself by making healthy diabetes-related choices and encouraging your at-risk family members to do the same may also improve their well-being. Indeed, sharing your lifestyle goals with your loved ones holds benefits for everyone.
This is the first in a series of articles that will address the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices for both you and your family. How can you make good-for-you eating a family affair?
A diagnosis of diabetes has an enormous impact on you and those around you. The importance of managing food, physical activity, medication, and blood glucose monitoring with everyday life may seem overwhelming at first. The support of your family is key; in fact, it’s been said, “It’s hard to do diabetes alone.” Because genetics influences the likelihood of developing diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes, your family members may also benefit from following your lead and making healthier choices as well.
But genes alone are not enough to determine who will develop diabetes; a person’s environment also plays a part.
In most cases of Type 1 diabetes (a condition in which the pancreas stops producing insulin), a person must inherit risk factors from both parents to develop the disease. But most people who are at risk don’t get Type 1 diabetes, so research into environmental factors is important and ongoing. Nutritionally, the only known link at this time between diet and Type 1 diabetes is that Type 1 diabetes is less common in people who were breast-fed as infants and in those who first ate solid foods at later ages.
In Type 2 diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin. It has a stronger link to family history than Type 1, but lifestyle also influences its development. Being overweight — particularly having excessive abdominal fat — and not exercising regularly raises one’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Because family members often have similar eating and exercise habits, obesity tends to run in families. So children of parents with Type 2 diabetes who model poor health habits are at increased risk for the condition not just because of genetics but also because of unhealthy habits that have been established over the years.
The good news is that a healthy lifestyle can delay and perhaps prevent Type 2 diabetes, even if the tendency is in the family genes. Exercising regularly and choosing healthful foods is good for both the person with diabetes and his family members. You cannot change your family history, but you can take smart steps to lower the risks for yourself and those around you.
Health begins at home
It’s not always easy to make lifestyle changes and to bring your family on board with your new behaviors. One helpful resource for establishing good health at home is the Y (also known as the YMCA). The Y has been a leader in promoting wholesome living by encouraging families to build the Five Pillars that support a healthy home: eat healthy, play every day, get together, go outside, and sleep well. Although not specifically aimed at diabetes self-management, these pillars and quick tips provide a great starting point for overall good family health: