Health officials say obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, go hand and hand, and Alabama has one of the highest rates of both conditions in the country. There's growing worry that if the situation is not put in check, health care costs in Alabama will become unmanageable.
Obesity rates have more than doubled, from 15.7% in 1995 to 32% in 2011. Also since 1995, the diabetes rate has almost tripled, from 4.7% to 12%.
"We call it diabesity, because it so linked to being overweight, being obese," said Dr. Miriam Gaines, Nutrition and Physical Activity Director for the Alabama Department of Public Health. "Type 2 is directly linked to lifestyle, and so when you become obese, you become overweight, especially in the center area, you become at higher risk for diabetes."
She said the traditional southern diet served its purpose when many Alabamians worked on farms. But for most of us, those days are long gone.
'The high calorie foods, the fried foods, the sugar foods that used to be good for us is now not what we need," Gaines explained.
And those diets and a lack of physical activity are leading to more Alabamians become obese and diabetic. Lowndes and Perry County are both in the top five for the highest rates of diabetes in the country; Dallas and Greene County are in the top five for obesity.
The costs are staggering. The last estimate from the Diabetes Care Project finds $1.64 billion in direct medical costs for diabetes alone in Alabama and another $859 million in indirect costs.
Part of the reason for that is the nature of the disease, according to Dr. Basil Burney, an endocrinologist at Jackson Hospital.
"If you have Type 2 Diabetes, your blood sugar does not go inside the cell, so the blood sugar stays in the blood and it may be toxic to all of your cells," Dr. Burney explained. "If your blood sugar stays high, it can affect your eyes, your nerves, your heart, pretty much any organ can be affected by diabetes."
Small steps change a life
Experts say small steps can make a big difference in changing lives. For Rhonda Hayes, that means daily walks and a healthier diet after years of obesity.
"I realized that I didn't want to be that person any more to try to get back to a healthier lifestyle," Hayes said.
A diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes made things more urgent.
"It is scary, you feel like your life is over," Hayes said. "And it is very overwhelming to try to remember everything to keep your sugar levels in balance. Then heart palpitations, where I felt like I was going to pass out. Then when it would go too low, when you were trying to keep it in balance, then of course I would get the headaches, the shaking."
Hayes credits the Baptist Health Center for Diabetes and Nutrition Education for helping her manage her condition. The center, located at Baptist East, works directly with patients and holds classes aimed at helping people make the right choices.
"Day to day, never a break, your blood sugar reflects your activity for the day and your choices for the day," said Pam Green, director of the center. "You want to create some good habits. You want to take one or two things that you do with your eating habits, and change them and make good plans in there and then build on that."
For Hayes, who is a Baptist employee, managing her diabetes has lead to improved health and more energy.
"As they say take the baby steps, and once you get there, you're good to go," Hayes said.
Another 7% of Alabamians are what's considered pre-diabetic, where their levels are elevated, but not high enough to be considered Type 2 Diabetes.
Dr. Burney advises patients to have a balanced diet, with only about 25% of calories coming from carbohydrates, and the rest from vegetables and proteins. Daily exercise can also keep blood sugar levels stable, besides its role in reducing weight. 30 minutes a day of moderate activity should be the target.
Information on the courses offered by the Baptist Health Center for Diabetes and Nutrition Education can be found here.
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