A Beginner’s Guide to Diabetes
By Alanna Nuñez
So you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. Now what? A diabetes diagnosis can be a little scary, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying—and it definitely doesn’t have to rule your life. With help from your doctor as well as a few strategic lifestyle changes, you can live a healthy, happy life.
Take some time. The first few days after you’ve received your official diagnosis might feel overwhelming, which is why you may find it helpful to take a couple of days to process. Let yourself feel however you want for the first three to four days, whether that’s angry, sad, worried, or stressed. Once you’ve done that, you’ll probably feel in a better state of mind to hammer out a plan.
Remember you’re not alone. Toby Amidor, R.D., MSN, and author of the upcoming The Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook, recommends finding a support group. Try the American Diabetes Association to start. The organization has a robust online community, but it also provides a directory of field offices in each state as well as posts volunteer opportunities, community events, and more.
Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that for most patients, this most likely means good blood sugar management, but your doctor will be able to help you pinpoint more specific goals to make sure you stay as healthy as possible. Your doctor may also recommend that you work on lowering your cholesterol if need be, but again, everyone’s goals will differ slightly, depending on their current health.
You might be wondering if this means you have to take medication for the rest of your life. Not necessarily! Some people with Type 2 diabetes find that a combination of dietary changes and exercise are all they need to keep their blood sugar in check. However, those with Type 1 diabetes will need insulin, either through a pump or injections. Per the Mayo Clinic, this is because with Type 1 diabetes, your immune system destroys your body’s insulin, leaving your body unable to produce enough. Unfortunately, diet and exercise alone can’t treat this.
Reach out for help. Amidor recommends looking for a registered dietitian who’s also a certified diabetes educator (CDE), meaning he or she will have expertise in managing and treating diabetes specifically. In addition to your regular physician, an RD can help you tackle any dietary changes. “This does take some time and patience, so having a team who communicates with each other is most helpful,” she says.
Write stuff down. Regular journaling can be a helpful tool in combating anxiety and stress, and it can also be an easy way to record your daily diet, as well as “[track] how your blood sugar [reacts] to the food you eat,” Amidor notes.
You’ll have a lot to remember initially, and it may take trial and error to figure out exactly what dosage of medication you should be taking, how much you need to eat, and what your perfect workout routine is. Keeping a detailed record can help figure out what’s working and what’s not.
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. “You don’t have to meet your goals immediately,” the CDC advises. No matter what you’re focused on—getting off the couch and pounding the pavement, eating more protein and fewer carbs—it’s okay to take things slow.
Re-frame the way you see food. It’s a common misconception that diabetics can’t have carbs, but your body needs carbs in order to function, Amidor says. The key is just to balance the amount of carbs in your diet with your medication (if you’re taking it). You may need to switch up your ratio of protein to carbs: Amidor recommends filling up your plate at each meal with ¼ lean protein (such as chicken, fish, or tofu), ¼ starches (for example, whole grains and whole fruit), and ½ low-carb vegetables (spinach, kale, and broccoli are all good picks, she notes), but you can still eat a large variety of healthy, tasty foods.
And remember, nothing is off-limits. When you receive your diagnosis, you may see your favorite foods (pizza! ice cream! cake!) flash before your eyes, but don’t despair. You probably will need to make some dietary changes, but a healthy, well-rounded diabetic diet can definitely include the occasional sweet treat or piece of junk food.
“Every food can fit into a diabetic diet,” Amidor stresses. “If you have a small piece of cake at a party, then that can be counted instead of carbs on your meal plate. You don't want to do that often, but you certainly can find ways to have a small portion.”
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