Simple Tricks for Living Well with Diabetes—from People Who Have It
Accepting a diabetes diagnosis can be difficult, especially when you must change previous habits and adapt your lifestyle. But there's good news: millions of people live full, happy, active and healthy lives, even with diabetes, and they've shared their best advice for doing the same.
Diabetes: Good and bad news
A 2019 report suggests that after years of rising and then a plateau, the number of new type 2 diabetes diagnoses actually declined in 2017, which is fantastic news. The not-so-good news is that type 2 diabetes cases are rising in adolescents and young adults at an alarming rate. Today, more than 30 million Americans are living with the disease, and about 95 percent have type 2 diabetes, which is the type that can be caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors like diet and exercise. (Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease triggered by factors unrelated to diet and exercise.) These people with type 1 or 2 diabetes reveal how they manage their conditions. (Here’s more on the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.)
Stay active and track your reactions
When David Weingard was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 36, he faced with some tough adjustments. From taking his new medication to monitoring his blood sugar, he fought to stay active and fit, eventually founding his diabetes coaching company, Fit4D. For Weingard, exercising had to remain a part of his life and he encourages other diabetics to do the same. (Here’s a list of things to consider when working out with diabetes.)
“Exercise is critical to long-term physical and mental health. Mentally, we need positive energy (and endorphins) to combat the 24/7 strain of the condition. Physically, we need to help our bodies stay strong and avoid the long-term effects and complications of diabetes,” he says.
But to figure out how much you can withstand and what works for your body, he also notes that keeping track your reactions will help create a plan that works uniquely for you. “Detailed record keeping is a key factor in realizing the benefits of exercise and minimizing blood sugar swings—especially highs and lows. You can reference these records to repeat workouts and your body should yield similar results most of the time,” he says. Find out what the best exercises are for people with diabetes.
Make mental health a priority
“When I got my type 2 diabetes diagnosis, knowing that I’d never be ‘normal’ again really wore me down,” says Sue Rericha, who was diagnosed at 37. “My mind wouldn’t be quiet. I was anxious. Then I started to realize that I wasn’t spending time outside, going for walks, reading books I enjoyed, or even spending time with my family anymore. I was depressed.” People with diabetes are up to three times more likely to experience depression than those without diabetes. However, only 25 to 50 percent get a diagnosis and treatment, a real issue when you consider that diabetics who manage their depression have 95 percent higher odds that their blood sugar will be well-controlled, according to a 2016 study in the journal Family Practice. “Antidepressants really help me to see things clearer than before,” says Rericha. “They help me not worry about all the little mistakes I make. And today I’m much better able to come up with a plan to help me lead the healthy life I know I need.” (Here’s some other complications that are extra risky as a diabetic that you should watch out for.)
Build a support system
Though Rachel Zucker is only 24 years old, she’s been managing her type 1 diabetes diagnosis since she was four years old, making her quite the expert. She described diabetes as a full-time job: She had to accept that there are no days off, no breaks or vacations. That’s why she recommends having supportive friends and family around you who will move with your highs and lows—they’re essential to keeping a good attitude and mindset. Instead of hiding your diagnosis, Zucker says wear it with pride. “I tell anybody and everybody close to me that I’m diabetic. Making sure people around you know you’re diabetic can be life-saving in an emergency situation. In college, I made sure everybody around me knew I had type 1 diabetes, so when I went out to a party or to a sorority fundraising event, there was always someone looking out for me. Some people are afraid or embarrassed to tell others about their medical condition; I would highly encourage them not to be. Nobody has to do this alone,” she says. Find out how fruit can lower your type 2 diabetes risk.
Get the most out of your drug store visit
Even though Mary Van Doorn has had type 2 diabetes for about 20 years, it wasn’t until three years ago that she started making the most out of her regular trips to the drug store. “I was the first one at our pharmacy to get a flash glucose monitoring system. The pharmacist and I started talking a lot about that, which led to us talking about other parts of my diabetes care,” says Van Doorn. “She’s been amazing! I ask questions about dosages, interactions, and storage. I ask for alternatives. And she is always willing to help me figure things out.” And Van Doorn’s pharmacist understands the ins and outs of insurance, which was instrumental in helping Van Doorn when her insurance initially denied her coverage of a drug she needed. “My pharmacist worked really hard for me to get that medicine paid for,” says Van Doorn. Today the pair are even Facebook friends. Van Doorn knew instinctively what researchers discovered in a study publishing in the Frontiers of Pharmacology: When pharmacists take a leading role in helping diabetes patients with disease management, it can significantly improve HbA1c levels. (Here are the secrets your pharmacist may not be telling you.)
Go slow and steady
When Maria Smith-Williams, 49, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes six years ago, she was surprised. “Even though diabetes runs in the family, I’d been fairly active and health-conscious most of my life,” she says. However, about three years prior to her diagnosis, fitness started to take a backseat. “I put on about 30 pounds, slowly and steadily,” says Smith-Williams. So that’s how she decided to lose the weight: Slow and steady. A 2019 study in the Journal of Obesity found that people who lost weight quickly didn’t garner any additional health benefits over those who achieved the same goal at a slower pace.
“My approach was not to live by the scale and push to get to my goal weight fast,” she says. “Instead, I went by how I felt.” Her morning 30-minutes of cardio daily (with four days of strength-training, too) helped her feel fantastic. “A morning workout makes the adrenaline flow for the whole day,” says Smith-Williams. “That feeling of accomplishment is the carrot I chase to keep me going.” Her routine has become essential for controlling her blood sugar; she has also lost about 10 percent of her weight five years post-diagnosis, which means she has a decent chance of putting her type 2 diabetes into remission, according to a 2019 study in the journal Diabetic Medicine. Learn more about the latest diabetes breakthroughs here.
Don’t be overwhelmed
Now 67, Carol Gee wasn’t diagnosed with type 2 diabetes until her late 50s. Although her new life was scary at first, she says that leaning into the unknown helped her manage her new lifestyle and adjust her habits, ensuring that she lived vibrantly throughout middle age. “Diabetes is scary, but with knowledge comes power. Take the medications the way you are supposed to and it will get easier. I was afraid of needles, so I considered it a great victory when I injected myself without passing out. Know that you ‘can’ survive and thrive with diabetes. You just have to say it—and more importantly—believe it.” Learn what interval training can do for diabetes.
Utilize all the experts
Mila Clarke Buckley knew right away her primary care physician was not going to be enough to help her navigate her type 2 diabetes diagnosis. “That first visit wasn’t very helpful or productive,” she says. “I left confused.” So Buckley started asking a lot of questions—and getting a lot of referrals. “I wanted to know how I could live a complication-free life. I went to a diabetes educator who really helped me get a handle on the big picture of diabetes.” (A certified diabetes educator can be a nurse, dietitian, pharmacist, even an exercise specialist, who’s received a comprehensive education on diabetes.)
Buckley’s diabetes educator, in turn, sent her to see an endocrinologist—a diabetes specialist. This motivated Buckley to get a diabetes-focused dietitian on board, too. “All of these experts helped me so much in figuring out what would work best for me,” she says. “I felt like I had specific tools, like learning how to count carbs for insulin, and when to test my blood sugar, and what the readings meant at different times. When you just see one expert, you don’t always get that specialized input.” Here’s what slippers experts say are best for men with diabetes.
Embrace new technology
Debbie Perriccioli, 51, is an 18-year type 2 veteran, but she hasn’t always been great about checking her blood sugar. “I thought I was doing everything right,” she says. But a few months ago, Perriccioli asked her endocrinologist if she could benefit from using a continuous glucose monitoring system, where blood sugar is regularly checked via a tiny wearable sensor inserted under the skin. He gave an emphatic Yes. The reason: New research presented at the American Diabetes Association’s 2019 conference shows that use of the continuous glucose monitoring system FreeStyle Libre significantly reduced HbA1c levels in people living with type 2 diabetes. So Perriccioli went for it. “I quickly realized that I actually wasn’t doing everything right,” she says. “With the new device, I noticed that I was having big blood sugar spikes after meals, and I was dropping really low in the middle of the night.” With her new insight, Perriccioli’s doctor was able to offer her a new med that helped her numbers. “I’m happy with the results,” she says. “And, honestly, I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t have the Libre.” Learn more about this needle-free monitoring alternative.
Don’t let it define you
Author and diabetes advocate, Quinn Nystrom first watched her younger brother get diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Then, two years later, she got the news herself at the age of 13. While that day was one of the worst of her life, she says, it’s taught her many life lessons and led her to help others. Even though living with diabetes is a 24/7 job, she encourages those who are newly diagnosed to not let it define them. Instead, she says, allow it to refine you. “We are not just a broken down pancreas. We’re more than a label that a doctor gives us, society tells us, and even sometimes what we tell ourselves. Seek to understand how the diagnosis of diabetes has brought light into your life. Find the positives,” she says.
Make sleep a priority
When Vidya Sury was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 50, she decided to take her healthy changes one step beyond diet and exercise tweaks. “I used to stay up late every night, and I knew that this was not ideal for health. I wanted to make a change,” she says. A smart move, especially since getting less than six hours of sleep a night mucks up slow-wave sleep, which seems to help maintain proper insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, according to the National Sleep Foundation. (Plus, menopausal women with type 2 diabetes are at greater risk for sleep disturbances.)
To improve her sleep, Sury backed up her entire day by a couple of hours. “I often worked late, but vowed to stop at 5:00 or 6:00 at the latest and keep my evening free to go for a walk,” she says. This made her eat dinner earlier and, in the end, go to bed earlier, too. “I started reading in bed rather than watching TV, and that was also very helpful.” These days, Sury wakes up refreshed and, even better, “my blood sugar levels are good! I also really think my sleep habits have helped me with weight management,” she says. Find out how sleep helps with weight loss.
Set attainable goals
Right before he started college, Joshua D. Miller, MD, couldn’t stop losing weight and was thirsty all the time. These symptoms led to a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes and would serve as the turning point in his life, leading him to become an endocrinologist and diabetologist and the medical director of Diabetes Care at Stony Brook Medicine. One way that he manages his condition (and helps his patients) is by focusing on small, achievable goals. “When it comes to diabetes, it is very difficult to reach all of your goals at once. From blood sugar monitoring, attention to a healthy lifestyle, medication management and physician visits, overcoming the disease’s challenges can seem daunting. Pick one or two small goals with your physician to help you move in the right direction. You will be surprised at how much success you can truly achieve,” he shares. You’ll also want to make sure you aren’t making these 11 mistakes that could ruin your diabetes control.
Manage your entire health
Though it can be difficult to focus on anything but your blood sugar, Mella Barnes has found that keeping all parts of her health top of mind helps keep her more satisfied and balanced. She discovered her type 1 diabetes at the age of eight, and has been managing the illness ever since. She says that focusing on each day has been helpful. She also discovered that staying in touch with her emotions is crucial. “Take care of your mental and emotional health. This impacts your diabetes more than you think! Stress causes a lot of issues as well as a lack of sleep. If you’re depressed or anxious about your diabetes, find a therapist or free support group. Do something that makes you happy every day,” she says. Watch out for these silent diabetes symptoms that people typically miss.
Change up breakfast
While overall diet tweaks are for-sure important for keeping type 2 diabetes in check, breakfast changes can be some of the most impactful. A carb-heavy breakfast leads to the largest blood sugar spikes for people with type 2 diabetes, which work to raise HbA1c levels. (The higher the HbA1c, the greater the risk of having complications related to type 2.) But shifting that routine can make a big difference. Take Gianetta Palmer, who’s been living with type 2 diabetes for over 20 years. Her breakfast go-to used to be cereal, muffins, or pastries. “And I’d eat them on-the-go,” she says. That, of course, sent her blood sugars soaring. Today, Palmer’s all about making time to cook—and eat—breakfast at home. “It’s most often eggs and turkey bacon,” she says. “This strategy definitely limits the carb crash that I used to experience. And I feel great.”
Palmer is certainly onto something: A 2019 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those who restricted carbs and increased fat intake at breakfast not only prevented the post-meal blood sugar spikes, but they also experienced better blood sugar control for the whole day. “My breakfast makes me feel full longer, thus limiting my cravings to grab something unhealthy,” says Palmer. Did you know that coffee has an effect on your blood sugar?
Find support among other people with diabetes
Fred Winchar discovered he was a type 2 diabetic six years ago and has worked hard to manage his diagnosis. A successful businessman who knows the importance of good advice, he quickly realized that he needed to talk to someone who had been through the struggle. “When I first was diagnosed, I told a friend who was a type 1 diabetic, and he helped me learn how to test and monitor my sugars. He was one of the most energetic and happy people I have ever met. He was delighted to help another person on the same journey. Not only did I learn but I was able to bond in a special way with someone who knew what I was going through,” he says. (Here’s the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.)
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- The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, "Type 2 diabetes in adolescents and young adults."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diabetes, Type 2
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- National Sleep Foundation: The Link Between a Lack of Sleep and Type 2 Diabetes
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diabetes, Diabetes & Mental Health
- Family Practice: "Antidepressant medication use and glycaemic control in co-morbid type 2 diabetes and depression."