Woman checking her insulin levels

Diabetes: How Healthy Habits Can Make a Big Difference

Did you know that nearly 1 in 4 Veterans receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has diabetes? With the numbers continuing to grow, it’s important to understand how to take charge of your health and manage your diabetes risk and care.

Diabetes Basics

With close to 25% of Veterans seeking care through VA diagnosed with diabetes, it is important for Veterans to have access to education, quality health care and treatment options.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy. With diabetes, your body can’t produce or properly use insulin so too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream after your body breaks down the food you eat. Over time, this can cause serious health problems such as heart disease, vision loss and kidney disease. There are three major types of diabetes—Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes. Between 90-95% of adults with diabetes have Type 2, so this article will focus its information on this type. To learn more about each type, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Diabetes page.

Symptoms of diabetes can include the following:

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst and hunger
  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet
  • Sores that heal slowly, more infections than usual or very dry skin

If you have any of these symptoms, you can talk to your doctor about getting your blood sugar tested.

Steps You Can Take Right Now

There isn’t a cure for diabetes, but there are definitely ways you can help prevent Type 2 diabetes or manage its impact on your life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Know your risk level. If you have a family history of diabetes, have high blood pressure, are overweight, have low physical activity levels, or are part of a high-risk racial or ethnic group such as African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander, talk to your health care provider about it.
  • Set a weight loss goal. If you are overweight, even small weight loss goals can have a big impact on your overall health.

    Senior man checking time while walking at park

  • Get active. This can help you keep your blood glucose level, blood pressure and cholesterol in the right place. Check out Do Your Best to Find Ways to Be More Active for some great tips to get started.
  • Make and keep health care appointments and take medicine as prescribed.
  • Be informed. You can take steps to self-manage your diabetes with the right education and support.
  • Eat healthy foods and avoid foods that are known to increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Food Choices: The Good and the Bad

The food choices we make every day greatly influence our risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Here are some ideas on foods to avoid:

  • Soft drinks and other drinks such as sweet teas, lemonade, fruit drinks and sweetened coffee drinks are full of added sugar. Instead try to fill up on water, tea or coffee without a lot of extras added in.
  • Fried foods, especially those from fast-food restaurants, lead to higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and more. Cooking with olive and canola oils at home can reduce this risk.
  • Heavily processed foods have unhealthy ingredients added such as salt, sugar, artificial flavor and color, etc., and are stripped of their nutrients. This usually includes ready-to-eat foods such as chips, frozen pizza, breakfast cereals and cookies. Nuts or crunchy veggies sliced up are a good ready-to-eat replacement for some of these items.
  • Heavily processed carbohydrates such as those made with white flour and white sugar do not contain much nutrition. Swap white bread, muffins, cakes, crackers and pasta for whole grain options whenever possible.
  • Too much red meat and processed red meat, like bacon, hot dogs and deli meats, can impact your health because of their high levels of sodium. You can search for low sodium options when you’re shopping or choose leaner options, like poultry without skin or salmon instead.

Woman swiping sensor with smart phone for glucose

The key to many good health outcomes is eating a wide variety of healthy foods from all different food groups. Diabetes does not mean you can’t enjoy food or some of your favorite dishes. It might mean changing a few habits, eating smaller portions and learning to cook in different ways. Good diabetes care includes getting help to create a meal plan that meets your body’s needs and allows you to enjoy food too. VA offers several recipes, cookbooks and resources to help Veterans learn to cook and eat healthier foods, including teaching videos and recipe demonstrations.

Resources for Veterans

With close to 25% of Veterans seeking care through VA diagnosed with diabetes, it is important for Veterans to have access to education, quality health care and treatment options.

  • Currently, VA offers diet counseling, weight loss programs and blood glucose monitoring to all Veterans enrolled in VA health care. Talk to your provider about a plan that’s right for you.
  • VA’s MOVE! is a weight management, health promotion program designed to help you with healthy eating, increased physical activity and weight loss—all factors that help prevent or control Type 2 diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus can also be caused by exposure to herbicides during service, such as Agent Orange. If you’re concerned that an exposure may have impacted your health, be sure to talk to your health care provider and visit VA’s Agent Orange page to learn more about potential exposure locations, steps you can take and what benefits you may be eligible to receive.
  • VA’s Understand Your Numbers campaign empowers you to take charge of your health by understanding what your numbers mean for checking your blood sugars, monitoring your A1C levels, knowing your blood sugar targets, counting your carbohydrates and much more. Check out the podcasts to increase your own diabetes knowledge.
  • VA Diabetes Information page has a ton of resources and information, including handouts, quizzes, videos, personal stories and much more.

The more you learn about diabetes and the steps you can take to change your lifestyle, the greater your health outcomes will be. Get started today!

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