Weight and the Fear of Diabetes
I’ve been thinking a lot about diabetes since listening to an episode of the StarTalk podcast that focused on the Foot Defender, an invention designed to help people with diabetes recover from foot ulcers.
Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of foot ulcers. I only learned about them because the a friend’s husband has diabetes and had these types of ulcers.
But I had no idea how bad these could be until I listened to the podcast. That’s when I learned that each year, 130,000 people in the U.S. have lower limb amputations because of complications with diabetes – namely, food ulcers that don’t heal and become infected. Even worse, after an amputation, someone with diabetes only has about a 50% chance of living past five years.
This is scary stuff, and I’m glad people are working on ways to reduce the number of amputations. And it was also fascinating to learn about all the engineering that went into the Foot Defender to help foot ulcers heal more quickly.
But thinking about diabetes invariably leads to thinking about weight – although they’re not as linked as some doctors would have you think.
Fear can cause unhealthy weight obsession
My own journey with food and weight issues can be linked, at least in part, to a fear of diabetes. But in my case, it wasn’t my fear. It was my mom’s.
As I recall, my mom was bound and determined to stay thin because she was so afraid of getting diabetes and was convinced that she’d get it if she was overweight. At least one of her grandmothers had diabetes (it may have been both, though I don’t remember for sure), and I think the grandmother even went blind as a result.
My mom didn’t want that to happen to her, so she became very fixated on her weight. She made sure to lose weight gained during pregnancy, and she noted her weight every day in her diary.
So, when I started gaining weight, as you might guess, she became very afraid that I’d get diabetes. At the time, I knew intellectually that her focus on my weight was largely fueled by medical concerns, but as a teen, it felt like she thought something was wrong with me, that I needed to be fixed. And that fed into my unhealthy relationship with food and contributed to poor self-esteem.
I can’t say that she didn’t have reason to be concerned, but unfortunately, her focus on my weight had the opposite result that she hoped for – and I’m not alone in that. Plus, in many cases, focusing so much on weight can cause other problems that can be as bad as what you’re trying to avoid.
Weight isn’t the only factor in diabetes
The other problem with the weight focus is that a higher weight doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get diabetes.
Genetics plays a big role. For example, in my dad’s family, those who’ve inherited the genes from my grandmother’s side seem much less likely to get diabetes. My grandfather, her father, and others who have been or are overweight have never had a problem with their blood sugar. But my grandfather, who was not overweight, did get diabetes.
Then there’s the question of behavior. Even if you’re genetically more inclined to get diabetes, your weight alone does not mean you’ll have problems. You can change other behaviors to reduce your chances of diabetes, such as getting regular exercise, avoiding smoking, and eating a variety of foods that include plenty of fiber, plant-based foods, and complex carbohydrates. Or, if you have diabetes, those behaviors can help manage it.
Eating mindfully may also help since you’re less apt to overeat or eat when you’re not hungry.
These behavior changes may have the side effect of weight loss, but they may also not. And even if you don’t lose weight, those changes will contribute to improved overall health, so it’s better to focus on those rather than what the scale says. After all, as you probably know if you’ve struggled with weight, you can’t just decide to lose weight and have it happen. All you can control is what you do.
Lots of factors in diabetes
Diabetes comes with lots of complications, and it makes sense to worry about it, especially if it runs in your family and/or you’ve seen the impacts first-hand. In those cases, or if you have other reasons to worry, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor and get tested.
But even though your doctor will probably tell you to lose weight, it’s important to remember that weight isn’t the only factor, and you may not be able to achieve the weight they suggest. And if you only focus on that, you may get discouraged and give up on other behaviors, like going for walks and changing what you eat, even if those habits will help prevent or moderate diabetes.
So, try to keep the focus on the behaviors you can control. And it’s also a good idea to pay attention to your feet, especially if you get diabetes, so you can hopefully avoid having to wear something like the Foot Defender.