Tips from the Experts on Managing Diabetes: Hold the Sugar, Bring on the Spark

The secret to optimal health is [CUE: DRUM ROLL…] “Eat right and exercise more!” Sound advice, to be sure, but what exactly does that look like for older adults trying to manage their diabetes? And what are the obstacles that prevent seniors from making healthier choices? To answer these questions (and many more), we turned to two of Lifesprk’s experts, Lifesprk Associate Medical Director, Sarah Johnson, APRN, CNP, and Lifesprk registered dietitian, JoAnna Weinand, RD.

According to Sarah, one of the main obstacles to better health is that people may not fully understand the information or recommendations. How the information is delivered is important. “Emphasizing what a person can do or eat is much more helpful than a list of don’ts. We always ask our clients what they like to eat and do, and then use those as a base to give them ideas.

“This makes applying the advice to their everyday life easier,” Sarah adds. It can also lead to good conversations about solutions to obstacles that may be getting in their way. “For example, I worked with a client who was concerned about exercising with peripheral neuropathy, a diabetes-related condition that occurs when the network of nerves that connects your brain and spinal cord to your muscles becomes damaged. While the condition did increase his risk for falls, he knew he needed to stay active. Exercise is particularly beneficial for people with peripheral neuropathy because it improves oxygen-rich blood circulation to strengthen nerve tissue and helps minimize the symptoms.”

Sarah suggested exercise bands to help with stretching and flexibility and to get his blood flowing. “We also discussed using a stationary bike, starting slowly to work up to a goal. Even five minutes in the morning is a great beginning. For this client, knowing that it wasn’t too late to begin exercising — and getting ideas he could put into practice—motivated and empowered him.”

Another obstacle is the perception that these lifestyle changes will be too restrictive, a myth that Sarah and JoAnna are determined to bust. “The best way to manage a chronic disease like diabetes is by making small changes over time,” said JoAnna. “We emphasize moderation, not deprivation.”

Below, Sarah and JoAnna share a trove of recommendations, insights, and tips to help you manage your diabetes and live a sparked life.

Level up

The A1C test measures your average blood sugar level over two to three months. A normal A1C level for people who don’t have diabetes is below 5.7 percent. For adults with diabetes, the A1C target is roughly 7 percent. However, for older adults living with diabetes, an A1C of 8 percent or higher may be the target to lower any potential for falls. This is not the case for everyone, and targets need to be individualized. “Your provider should set your target A1C,” stresses Sarah. “The goal is to avoid hypoglycemia and understand where your blood sugar is when you feel your best.”

Read the fine print

Read labels on food products to know the carbohydrate count per serving. Some yogurts and salad dressings are loaded with added sugars (a.k.a., carbs). And make sure to check the serving size on each product. For example, one serving of a certain high-sugar granola is 1/4 cup. In general, one serving of rice, pasta, or potatoes is 1/3 cup. Also keep in mind that fruit, milk, yogurt, and starchy vegetable, like peas and corn, count as carbs.

As for how many carbs to eat per meal, the standard recommendation for women is 45 grams of carbs for each of three meals, and for men, 60 grams of carbs for each of three meals. 

Food, glorious food

Let yourself enjoy your favorite foods—just in small amounts. If you’re craving something sweet, for example, have one rich and delicious chocolate truffle. Eat it slowly and savor every morsel. If wine is your preferred treat, enjoy a half glass a couple evenings a week.

Other than the occasional treat, here are several easy substitutions and additions you can make:

  • Choose whole fruit instead of fruit juice—an apple or orange vs. orange juice. Whole fruit is packed with more vitamins and fiber which satisfies hunger pangs and helps with regularity.
  • Add protein to your breakfast, such as peanut butter, hardboiled egg, lean meat, cottage cheese, or nuts (good fat and protein) to help stabilize blood sugars.
  • Go for whole grain foods—brown rice or potatoes (with the skin) instead of white rice or white pasta—to add fiber to your diet.
  • For dessert, try fresh or frozen berries with a little whipped topping and a few nuts.
  • Stay hydrated to help control your blood sugars, reduce hunger, and support kidney function.

Let’s get physical

Exercise isn’t about exhausting yourself. It’s about keeping your joints limber, building strength, and maintaining a healthy weight. Go for walks in your neighborhood, down the hall, or even around your living room during commercial breaks. And if you feel a little sore the next day, that means your muscles got a good workout. Keep at it and the soreness will go away.

As we age, our bodies lose lean muscle mass. Spending even 5–10 minutes every day working with a stretchy band or lifting objects (soup cans, laundry detergent jug, etc.) will get the blood moving and keep the muscles engaged. Equally important is that exercise will help you use glucose from food more efficiently.

Talking turkey

Thanksgiving is typically a cornucopia of rich dishes, followed by a bounty of equally rich desserts—not exactly the easiest meal to navigate when you’re trying to manage your blood sugars. Here are several strategies to help you enjoy the festivities without jeopardizing your health:

  • Offer to bring something healthy like a vegetable tray.
  • Be selective—if you love sweet potatoes, skip dessert; if you prefer bread, then pass on the rice.
  • If you’re tempted to go back for seconds, offer to start doing the dishes instead.
  • Limit alcohol to just one drink.
  • If you’re going to eat dessert, choose one and ask for a thin slice.
  • Go for a walk after the meal to help your body use the glucose. 

The Plate Method

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) offers the Plate Method as a simple way to balance your meals:

  • Fill half of a 9-inch dinner plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, or spinach.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein, such as tuna, lean pork, chicken, eggs, tofu, tempeh, lentils, or beans.
  • Fill the other quarter with a whole-grain food, such as brown rice, pumpkin, acorn squash, potato, sweet potato, or green peas.
  • Include a small amount of healthy fat, such as nuts or avocado.
  • Drink a glass of water or unsweetened tea or coffee.

The COVID factor

The reality is that diabetes increases the risk of becoming severely ill from coronavirus, so you do need to take extra precautions. The best thing you can do is to control what you can: keep your blood sugars in check, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, exercise a few minutes every day, connect with family by phone or video, and do more of the things that make you happy.

But wait—there’s more!

Through December 31, 2020, Lifesprk’s Diabetes Awareness Campaign is offering up a host of diabetes-related activities, education, and information at diabetes.lifesprk.com:

To get connected with Lifesprk resources, call Lifesprk Navigation at 952-345-0919 or schedule a free consultation to help you live a sparked life with diabetes!