Opinion: Type 2 Diabetes in Latinos, ¡Azúcar!

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November is the month of a time-honored tradition when some families get together to give thanks around a robust meal. Ironically, it is National Diabetes Month. The holidays can test our will power and make it harder to say no to a second serving of sweets. If we truly want to turn the tide on the diabetic epidemic in this country, it’s time to get real about our addiction to sugar.

Our taste buds have been hijacked by processed foods in general and sugar in particular. As a result, sugar has created an appetite for itself. Sports drinks, protein bars, fat free items, Greek yogurt, breads, sauces, milk and frozen foods – outside of vegetables- have added sugar. Moreover, sugar is hiding in 74 percent of packaged foods.

When I was a kid we went to the gas station to buy gas. Today, you have a candy store at the gas station. Also at the office supply store, the hair salon, at church, parking garages, pharmacies and hospitals.

— Katina Rojas Joy

According to the Diabetes Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, almost 30 million (8.3 percent) Americans have diabetes and by 2050 one in three adults may develop diabetes. Within that group, multicultural communities bear the highest burden. Amongst Latinos in the U.S., Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of diabetes (14.8 percent), followed by Cubans (9.3 percent), Central and South Americans (8.5 percent) and Mexican Americans (3.9 percent), according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to Jeffery E. Pessin, Ph.D., Director of the Diabetes Research Center, Department of Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, obesity is the driving force in the tremendous growth in type 2 diabetes.

However, not every obese person has diabetes and sugar does not cause diabetes.

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“Diabetes follows obesity and the more obese we become the more likely we are to develop diabetes,” according to Pessin, who adds: “obese individuals develop a pro inflammatory state that creates an environment in your blood that is resistant to insulin.”

Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. has doubled over the last 30 years. When I was a kid we went to the gas station to buy gas. Today, you have a candy store at the gas station. Also at the office supply store, the hair salon, at church, parking garages, pharmacies and hospitals. We celebrate Halloween, Easter, Valentine's Day and Three Kings Day by eating what?  That's right. Sugar.

Moreover, I am positive many restaurant goers think they are making healthy choices when choosing to eat out. What’s wrong with a bowl of pasta and a side order of bread? However, they would be shocked to find out how much added sugar is in the most commonly served dishes at some restaurant chains, for example:  
1 cup of marinara sauce,  24 gm
1 super size soda, 44 gm
1 serving of salad dressing 4gm
1 slice of frozen pizza 6gm

According to the American Heart Association, women should only consume 6 teaspoons of sugar (or 24 gm) a day and men should only consume 9 (or 36 gm). We don’t need sugar to function, period.

The dangers of too much sugar consumption have been widely documented; in fact Dr. Mark Hyman, founder of the Massachusetts-based Ultra Wellness Center, and Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco are leading the national charge against the overconsumption of sugar.

Author and activist Michael Pollen says, “Just eat what your great-grandma ate." My great-grandmother and grandmother grew up in a rural town in Puerto Rico where we had to walk to the one store in the town known as the “colmado.” My grandmother would buy one potato, fresh oregano, a garlic clove, rice, a bag of beans and if there was enough money, an avocado. My grandmother would head out to her backyard to acquire our dinner, which meant plucking up one of her many chickens. Voilà, we had chicken soup with rice and a potato for dinner.

My grandmother didn’t eat snack foods, drink soda, rarely ate sweets, quit smoking and worked long hours in a physically demanding job. At age 80, she is healthy as an ox. My mother, on the other hand, was a product of the 1970’s fast food, sugar boom. She ate cake
(Valenica Bakery cakes were her favorites), drank soda, laced her coffee with sugar and had a desk job. As a result, my mother has cardiovascular disease and end stage diabetes. She quit smoking after her first heart attack at age 39, but she still continues to consume foods with added sugar.

So, how do we, as sugar craving consumers reduce our risk for type 2 diabetes?
Taking small steps is a good start:

• Stop drinking diet and regular sodas, they are fatal
• Drink more tap water, seltzer water and tea
• Negotiate your meals, skip the pie if you want wine and ask for support from family
• Pack an apple, nuts, peanut butter, banana, carrots, a cheese stick or pretzels  
• Exercise at home, track your progress with a fitness monitor or a health/fitness app
• If you live in a food dessert, stock up on healthy alternatives on the weekends

After my mother’s heart attack, I was scared enough to make major changes in my life. In 1991, I gave up pork and red meat (adios chuleta), and 15 years ago I gave up rice, pasta, soda and juice — cold turkey! I have never smoked or consumed alcohol, I stopped adding sugar to my coffee and exercise a lot. That said, I am still at risk for developing diabetes based on my family history and age. While I do enjoy sweets, I struggle every day to realize that I don’t need sugar to have a sweet life and neither do you.