Hispanic Diabetes Educators Share Their Top Advice
The Hispanic/Latinx community in the United States faces unique challenges when it comes to managing type 2 diabetes. Not only is this population disproportionally affected by the disease, but many Hispanic and Latinx Americans also deal with obstacles related to healthcare access, proximity to diabetes specialists, and availability of quality food. Management is key to living a long and healthy life with diabetes, no matter how far along you are in the disease progression. The more you know, the more empowered you’ll feel—so we tapped two diabetes educators familiar with this special population to share their best advice.
Managing Your Diabetes Is an Ongoing Process
Living with diabetes involves more than just taking a few pills a day and forgetting about it. “Diabetes is a chronic disease that needs self-management,” says Ina Flores, assistant program director of Emory Latino Diabetes Education Program in Atlanta. “The person with diabetes is the one who decides what to eat and what not to eat, whether to check their blood sugar or not, whether to go for a walk or not.” Focus on the little things you can control each day and do those to the best of your ability.
There Is No Shame in Having Diabetes
Lorena Alarcon-Casas Wright, M.D., director of the Latinx Diabetes Clinic at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, says that her patients sometimes feel ashamed of their diabetes diagnosis. “Diabetes is not something we cause ourselves,” she explains. “Diabetes is a disease, and it doesn’t help to have shame or be embarrassed.” Instead, she suggests, learn as much about the condition as you can so you can feel confident in your ability to navigate your care.
Diabetes Is by No Means a Death Sentence
Dr. Wright says that some people feel like giving up after they get a diagnosis. “They’ll say, ‘I already have it, and it’s not going to go away, so what’s the point?’” she recalls. “The result of that is poor control of diabetes and complications.” Remember this: Diabetes is a manageable condition, and emerging research is even showing that it may be reversible to some extent. It’s OK to feel sad when you receive a diagnosis, but don’t subscribe to the false belief that you are powerless over your future.
... But It’s Not a Walk in the Park, Either
At the same time, it doesn’t help to minimize the seriousness of a diagnosis like this. Your life will be—and should be—different afterward. “Knowing that diabetes is a disease that when well-controlled, complications are minimal, is important,” Dr. Wright says. She sometimes sees patients who believe they will be fine without making lifestyle adjustments or seeking out medical advice. Denial won’t help you either, and it may only lead to complications later on.
Focus on Healthy Foods You Love
Rather than learning a whole new way to eat, buy more of the healthy foods you already know and enjoy. “I ask the patients what they usually eat and try to identify things they are already eating and that they like,” Dr. Wright explains. “I emphasize, ‘This is a great choice. If you like it, try to have more of this and less of this.’” Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all great pantry staples to keep on hand, and you probably know at least the basics about how to cook them.
It’s OK to Treat Yourself Sometimes
You’re not doomed to a life of salads forever! “What I want to emphasize is not to have this negative attitude or depressing view of diabetes,” Dr. Wright says. “Our recommendations for people with diabetes are recommendations we should all have for people’s health. Yes, you can have dessert, you can have sweets sometimes. It’s just not a good idea to have them every day.” These practices are healthy for everyone, so maybe you can convince your family to join you in making healthier versions of your favorite treats.
Exercise Can Be Whatever You Make It
Even if it’s just a 10-minute work break, that’s 10 minutes more than you would otherwise be moving your body. Small wins are still wins! Daily exercise is super important for diabetes management, but that doesn’t mean you have to start training for a marathon. “You don’t have to join a gym and buy a membership; just increase activity in [your] daily life,” Dr. Wright suggests. “Try to take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible. Try to go for a small walk.” Sneak in a few squats while dinner is in the oven, do a quick stretching routine while you watch TV, or plant a garden to give you a reason to spend more time outside.
Maximize Your Available Time in the Day
Are you convinced your life is too busy to fit any meaningful lifestyle change? Think again. “A lot of times, we say we don’t have time,” Dr. Wright says. “But when we look at our day, we could probably fit a small amount of time to be active. It doesn’t have to be a lot—we start with a little and go from there.” Turn off that extra TV episode to do yoga at home, or park at the back of the grocery-store parking lot to walk in.
Support Groups Can Help You Feel Less Alone
Living with diabetes can feel lonely, but so many others share this experience—one in 10 Americans have diabetes, and the percentage of Hispanic people in the United States with the condition is around 17%. “Diabetes education programs help the patient and teach them each step,” Flores says. They also provide emotional support and friendship. “Just to be in a group of people who have diabetes, [where] everyone talks about their struggles, they feel a sense of partnership,” she notes. One good place to start is the American Diabetes Association’s online community.
You Hold More Power Than You Think
“Diabetes management is complex, and there are a lot of steps that patients need to do to manage their diabetes,” Flores says. That’s why many patients end up feeling overwhelmed, especially when they face barriers to treatment and caret. But Flores urges anyone with diabetes to start small. “I encourage them to take one day at a time and see what they can do first,” she says. You’ll be surprised how much you can do by educating yourself (just like you are right now!) and making small changes.