Fittest Loser: Know the risk factors, symptoms, and ways to reduce your risk for developing diabetes

Nearly 10 percent of the American population has diabetes, according to the National Diabetes Statistics Report from 2017.

Millions of people are living with the disease, but as many as one in four adults, 7.2 million, could be diabetic and unaware they have the condition. Due to its large footprint, knowledge about diabetes, symptoms, and risks factors is becoming even more important.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe diabetes as a condition in which the body does not properly process food for energy.

The majority of foods we eat turn into glucose, or sugar, in the body. The pancreas produces the hormone insulin to then help that glucose enter the cells in the body. Diabetics either can’t make enough insulin on their own or their bodies don’t use insulin as well as it should, which can cause sugars to build up in the blood.

Individuals can be diagnosed with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Approximately 1.25 million people are living with Type 1 diabetes. Autoimmune, genetic, and environmental factors can all be risk factors for developing this form of the disease. Type 1 diabetics are unable to produce insulin on their own, resulting in them needing insulin from the time of diagnosis.

Type 2 diabetics are insulin resistant, meaning their body does not use insulin properly. According to the CDC anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of diagnosed diabetes cases are Type 2.

"Often I’ve heard people say that there is a ‘good or a bad,’ but there is no good or bad diabetes," said Rosario Garcia, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator with Amita Alexian Brothers Medical Center.

While many people are diagnosed with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, the National Diabetes Statistics Report estimated that just over 84 million people could have prediabetes, which is the stage just before diabetes develops.

"In prediabetes, blood sugars are above normal, but not high enough for (the individual) to be diagnosed with diabetes," Garcia said. "Prediabetes is identified when your fasting blood glucose is greater than or equal to 100 but less than 126." Risk factors

More is known about risk factors for Type 2 diabetes than Type 1.

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include modifiable risk factors (those you can control) and unmodifiable risk factors (those which are out of your control).

A family history of diabetes, race/ethnicity, older age, history of gestational diabetes, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. Symptoms

Diabetes has its own set of symptoms, but Garica said they are sometimes so mild they go unnoticed.

Symptoms include frequent urination, feeling very thirsty, experiencing extreme hunger despite eating, extreme fatigue, blurry vision, very dry skin, increased infections, and cuts and bruises that are slow to heal. Those with Type 1 diabetes may lose weight even though they are eating. Type 2 diabetics may experience tingling, pain, or numbness in their hands and feet.

Prediabetes does not have a clear set of symptoms, so it is possible to live with the condition and not know you have it. At times, prediabetics experience symptoms of diabetes. Reducing your risk

While family history and age, among other risk factors, are not within one’s control, it’s important to remember that there are lifestyle changes one can make to reduce the risk of developing prediabetes or diabetes.

Garcia said that not every individual who is prediabetic will develop Type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, early treatment for some prediabetics can help their blood glucose levels return to a normal range.

"When people make lifestyle modifications such as making healthier food choices and increasing physical activity, they can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent," Garcia said.

In addition, Garcia said research shows that when people get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week and lose 7 percent of their body weight, they can improve their blood glucose, which can help delay the development of diabetes. Not all risk factors for diabetes are modifiable, but two significant ones — being overweight and leading a sedentary lifestyle — are. Being proactive about eating healthy, well-balanced meals and being physically active can help combat these two risk factors.

Several of this year’s Fittest Loser contestants applied to the challenge to face these modifiable risk factors head on. Bob Sinclair, who has been told his numbers fall in the prediabetes zone, is hoping particiption in the contest will help lower his numbers. He’s had success in lowering his numbers by changing his diet and increasing his physical activity before and he hopes to do so again. He said he’s excited to see what his numbers are post-Fittest Loser. He feels that any change in his numbers can be largely attributed to modifications he’s made to his diet.

"Even when I go out (to eat), I’m not afraid to order to a salad. I’m comfortable with that and I don’t need dessert," said Sinclair, who added that he doesn’t miss some of the less healthy foods he used to eat.

Diabetes runs in contestant Melissa Hood’s family, which was part of why she wanted to compete in the challenge and make lifestyle modifications that could help lower her risk of developing the disease.

"My numbers were creeping up into the prediabetic zone and that was a big concern for me," Hood said.

Many facilities, including Amita Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center and Amita St. Alexius offer education programs to patients. As a certified diabetes educator, part of Garcia’s role is to guide people through managing their diabetes. She reminds them that, while there is no cure for diabetes, the condition can be controlled. She tells people that diabetes is not a death sentence and that, sometimes, learning of their diagnosis can actually prompt healthy changes.

"It can be a blessing in disguise because it gives people the opportunity to make positive lifestyle changes," Garcia said.

• To see the Fittest Loser contestants’ latest weight stats, visit

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