It’s National Diabetes Awareness Month—Here’s What to Know if You Just Got a Diabetes Diagnosis
A prediabetes or diabetes diagnosis can definitely seem nerve-wracking, and sometimes even isolating, when you first hear the news. But it’s important to know you’re not alone. In fact, more than 10% of the population (or more than 34 million Americans) have diabetes, according to 2018 numbers from the American Diabetes Association, and about 1.5 million Americans get diagnosed with the condition each year.
In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month, we talked to Hailey Crean, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Hailey Crean Nutrition, LLC, a telenutrition practice, about the initial steps to take after you get a diagnosis.
First, it’s totally normal to have a lot of questions. You might think, what changes do I need to make to my diet? What other areas of my life need adjustments? Do I need to give up everything I love? The answer to that last one is certainly not. “The most common misconception that I hear when someone is first diagnosed is that they can never eat their favorite foods again,” says Crean, who aims to steer people away from thinking about an “all or nothing” approach to food. “Most of the time there are ways to work in favorites—and not only is this possible, but it's also a goal we work toward.”
Another important thing to remember: It’s not necessarily about making a complete overhaul to your life, especially all at once. It can be less overwhelming to start small, focusing on one or two goals at a time and building from there for more gradual, long-lasting changes, says Crean.
If you’re feeling lost on what small change to start with or you’re overwhelmed by all the information you get with a prediabetes or diabetes diagnosis, Crean offers tips (below) on how to determine the best next steps. Go down this list, checking off each strategy that seems doable. Then, try implementing a change, one or two at a time, into your daily life. Analyze what will stick with you in the long run. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to try a different strategy—they can all add up to health success.
Take a look at your eating habits.
Answer a few questions for yourself, Crean suggests, like how many times a day you eat, at what times, and with who. Also, think about meals you find more challenging—say, having a hearty breakfast. Decide if you can start implementing small changes to that specific meal to start. While some people need to count carbohydrates to help manage diabetes, others benefit from focusing on food groups and balanced plates, Crean says.
If you want to start focusing on a more balanced plate, think about how you can add more non-starchy veggies to your day. (For example, with your morning meal, add some spinach or peppers to an omelet.) Or if you notice you’re eating lots of refined carbs, like white breads, rice, or pasta, at lunch and dinner, see if you can add in or swap for whole grains. The whole grains will fill you up with more fiber. These simple swaps—focusing on one food at a time—can start to make a difference in your health after you get that diabetes diagnosis.
If you notice you’re frequently skipping meals or eating at irregular times, you should also think about whether you can adjust your routine, Crean says. A more predictable eating schedule can help control hunger and better balance blood sugars.
“A healthy diet for someone with diabetes is a healthy diet for anyone,” Crean says. You want your diet to feel “liberalized and sustainable and as enjoyable as possible, so it doesn’t feel like a restriction.” It should be a diet that you like, with foods you like eating and you should feel satisfied after consuming it, she adds. Ask yourself how satisfied you feel after a meal and let that be a key factor in determining if a change will last.
Think about how you can add more movement to your day.
What can you do for 10 minutes a day that will get you up and moving—and enjoying that movement? For some people, it’s a walk after dinner, for others it’s a dance party around the house, and others might prefer a quick stroll to start the day. Whatever it is that sounds appealing to you, take 10 minutes at an hour that feels convenient, and try implementing exercise into your day at that time. Then aim to keep it going day after day.
“Moving more, for most of us, just makes us feel better,” says Crean. You might feel more energized, less stressed, or like you got a mood boost. Take note of how you feel after a workout and let that feeling motivate you to keep coming back for more movement. If you have trouble starting a workout, think about that after-effect too. If you’re more motivated by numbers, it can also be encouraging to see how exercise affects your blood sugar, says Crean.
In general, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for everyone, including those with a diabetes diagnosis. Keep that in mind as an ultimate goal.
Consider your stress levels.
Sometimes it can feel difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes your stress to skyrocket—and other times we don’t even realize just how stressed we are. Think about times you feel anxious or tense and what caused that emotion. Maybe it’s a work project or a confrontation at the office; maybe it’s a never-ending to-do list with things to handle at home. After you pinpoint a situation that’s stressing you, consider the steps you’ve already taken to address that stress or one small step you can take now toward diminishing it, Crean says. It could be finishing just one part of that work project, talking to a coworker to try to dissolve any issues, or figuring out what items on your to-do list you can put off for another day or week. Focus on the tasks that need immediate attention and things you can control—and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Whatever works for you to start addressing your stress, take the time to implement one change at a time and assess how it works for you.
Factor in your sleep patterns.
How did you sleep last night? How have you been sleeping for the past few weeks? Do you wake up feeling lethargic? Ask yourself these questions to see if you need to pay a little more attention to your time in bed at night. Quality shut-eye can affect other health behaviors, too, like exercise and eating habits (both super important for those with a diabetes diagnosis), so you might need to spend a little more time focused on good zzz’s. “Sometimes just making those connections is helpful for people,” says Crean.
Check in with how you’re feeling.
Taking time to understand how you feel about your diagnosis and how you think it might change your life is an important step, particularly when working with a diabetes educator like Crean. Some people are fearful because they’ve witnessed a loved one experience the disease, and others feel overwhelmed at the thought of adding more tasks to their already full to-do lists, Crean explains. “There is not always a solution to every feeling right away, but voicing the thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing can have a significant impact,” she adds. “Once we start to understand the feelings [surrounding a diabetes diagnosis], we can then develop strategies to address those feelings.”
Those strategies might look like a support group to talk and listen to others going through a similar experience or figuring out what self-care practices have worked for you before the diagnosis, and making sure you continue those habits. “Diabetes, like life in general, can be stressful and it can ebb and flow over time,” Crean says. “Identifying how an individual copes with stress and if this coping mechanism has positive or negative impacts on health can be helpful in setting a direction for care.”
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