Although an overall healthy state, diabetes is on the rise in Utah

ST. GEORGE — Although Utah ranks as one of the healthiest states in the nation, cases of diabetes are on the rise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes, and what is true for the nation is also true in Utah. More than 200,000 people living in the beehive state have the disease. An additional 620,000 people or 32.7% are prediabetic with blood sugar levels that are higher than normal.

The state has experienced a steady increase in adults over 20 who have been diagnosed with diabetes.

According to the CDC, 5.8% of the state’s population in 2004 had the disease. This increased to 7.7% by 2016. Approximately one in 13 adults in Utah has diabetes.

In Southern Utah, Washington County is doing better during the same period with 6.1% in 2004 to 6.7% in 2016.

Still, the numbers are on the rise, said Lucinda Ross, an Intermountain Healthcare nurse practitioner who is board-certified in diabetes management.

Diabetes prevalence per state. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“In states where people engage in more activity we’ve always been one of the better states, but if you look at where we’ve been and where we are, we are changing,” she added.

Diabetes is the condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy.

Most food is turned into glucose or sugar. The pancreas makes a hormone called insulin to help glucose get into the cells. When someone has diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or cannot use its own insulin as well as it should.

Uncontrolled diabetes can result in medical difficulties such as blindness, kidney disease and nerve damage. Diabetes is also an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke, as well as a leading cause of amputations because of the damage the disease causes in the feet and legs.

“All of the complications of diabetes, once they start happening, it’s really hard to go backward,” Ross said. “But, if we can prevent them from happening by controlling things like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, we can prevent people from having retinopathy, kidney disease and neuropathy.”

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

One of the contributing factors for the rise in diabetes is caused in part by our couch potato society, Ross said.

“If you are talking Type 2 diabetes, which affects 90% of the people with the disease, it is linked to obesity and the lack of activity,” she said. “It’s also linked to not getting up and moving around.”

The National Institute of Health suggests people with jobs that keep them at that their desks for long periods need to stand and walk at least once an hour.

We’ve also become a society of supersizing meals, Ross said.

“We are eating way more junk food than we should, and it’s making us fat,” she said. “A lot of restaurants serve portion sizes that are way too big. I think we need to get away from thinking we can eat whatever we want.”

One way to help avoid obesity and create proper portion control is by employing the plate method.

The Health Eating Plate method. Source: Harvard School of Public Health

The Plate Method

  • Fill one-half of the plate with two servings of non-starchy vegetables.
  • Fill one-quarter of the plate with lean meat (three ounces cooked) or other high-protein food.
  • Fill one-quarter of the plate with a starchy vegetable or whole grain serving (amount varies depending on food selected).
  • Include a serving of fruit and/or dairy.

Knowing the warning signs and being tested is critical.

Warning signs include feeling tired, short of breath, urinating more, have excessive thirst, extreme hunger and unexplained weight loss. Many health care professionals say people need to know if there is something different from a health standpoint, and if it turns out to be diabetes, it needs to be addressed immediately.

“A lot of times with Type 2 diabetes, because the blood sugar goes up so slowly, some people will not have symptoms,” Ross said. “Many times diabetics will be diagnosed after something like having a heart attack. That is why it is important to have an annual medical exam. Even though you might feel okay with a blood sugar level of 250, it doesn’t mean bad things aren’t happening at the cellular level. You can’t be like an ostrich and hide your head in the sand,”

Other warning signs also include sudden changes in vision, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, excessively dry skin, sores that are slow to heal and more infections than normal.

Although currently there is no cure for diabetes, lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and limiting carbohydrate intake.

While Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics may have slightly different dietary needs, the basic guideline for proper nutrition cuts across all forms of diabetes. The key is carbohydrate management. Diabetes, at its core, can be thought of as a disease caused by the body’s inability to properly process carbohydrates.

“Everybody out there is bashing carbs,” Ross said. “Carbohydrates are not bad; they are our energy food. We need carbohydrates to maintain our energy. The problem is there are a lot of bad carbohydrates out there.”

Bad carbs include regular soda, sweets, cookies, crackers, potato chips and french fries, to name a few.

As a general rule of thumb, people with diabetes should split their carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day, consuming between 130 and 180 grams total.

One challenge for diabetics is that fruits and vegetables do not have labels. In addition, many fast-food restaurants do not include carbohydrate grams in their dietary listings.

To fill this void, there are books such as “CalorieKing” that include fats, calories and carb amounts for a wide variety of foods, drinks and popular restaurant meals.

While it’s true that a family history of diabetes does lead to a greater risk for diabetes, there are simple steps people can take to reduce the likelihood to develop the disease.

Steps recommended to help prevent diabetes and its complications include:

  • Be aware of personal risk factors.
  • Be physically active — aim for at least 30 minutes per day.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat more complex carbohydrates such as whole-grain bread and pasta; and less refined grains like white/enriched bread and pasta.
  • Work with your doctor on preventive measures.
  • Manage blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Quit or don’t start using tobacco.
  • Avoid eating late at night.

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