When most new patients walk into a class at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) Coastal Bend Health Education Center in Corpus Christi, they know little about diabetes other than the fact that they have it.
They don’t know what they should eat, what their medications do to their body or how to reverse decades of bad habits that led to the diagnosis.
“It’s stressful. It’s overwhelming. They don’t know what to eat or what to do,” says Manuel Guajardo, RN, a diabetes educator. “When they hear they have diabetes, they think, ‘Now I can’t eat anything.’ We teach them that a few lifestyle changes can make a huge difference.”
In Texas, the rate of diabetes is higher than the national average and growing. By 2040, researchers expect Texas to have 8 million residents suffering from diabetes, according to a 2010 report by the Texas Health Institute.
The epidemic is more pronounced in South Texas, where rates climb higher than state averages and prompted the TAMHSC-Coastal Bend Health Education Center to focus on diabetes management, prevention and awareness.
In 2011, 923 people completed a diabetes education class offered by the center. The center offers classes as either daylong sessions or as a series of evening classes and teaches them in English, Spanish and sign language. The classes provide critical information patients don’t typically glean from rushed doctor appointments.
“They think the drugs will lower blood sugar and that’s all they need,” says Hermelinda Basurto, RN, who has taught classes for more than a year.
During the class, diabetes educators explain how different drugs treatments actually work. They also emphasize that the lifestyle changes impact health far more than medicines.
“They don’t have to start running five miles a day,” Guajardo says. “They can start by walking around the neighborhood for 15 minutes.”
During each diabetes management class, participants complete a 15-minute workout video that involves power walking and marching. Everyone in the class measures their blood sugar before the exercise and afterward.
Guajardo said he‘d never forget the man whose blood sugar dropped from a dangerous 247 to a manageable 146 just from the 15 minutes of exercise.
Many people also don’t understand the basics of carbohydrate counting – a foundation of diabetes management – because they often have only a vague concept of what carbohydrates are, Guajardo says. They’ve heard the term and may know it refers to bread but don’t always realize that beans, tortillas, baked potatoes and fruit count as carbohydrates, too.
Because eating healthy is such a big part of diabetes management, the TAMHSC-Coastal Bend Health Education Center offers nutrition classes to past class participants and any other community members. The nutrition course is a series of three classes that tackles all aspects of eating – buying food at the grocery store, cooking it at home and eating out.
Each series begins in the grocery store, where a dietician guides the participants down the aisles and points out good choices. During cooking demonstrations, participants see easy recipes prepared, have a taste and go home with the recipes.
Since not all meals are prepared at home, the nutrition team also teaches about how to make the best choices when dining out. Class members examine menus from area restaurants and discuss what options would be the best choice.
The $25 class includes quarterly follow-up lab work, which helps nurses know if patients practice what they learned in class. The goal is a drop in “A1Cs,” which measures the average plasma glucose concentration in blood. They’ve seen some patients start the class with a level above a chart-topping 12 and, after intervention, come back below pre-diabetic levels.
“The information we give them, when they take it to heart, can make a huge difference in their life,” Guajardo says.
Think you might be diabetic? Here are some warning signs
- Blood relative with diabetes
- Age is a risk factor
- Extreme thirst
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
Eating tips to avoid and manage diabetes:
- Watch your fat and carbohydrate intake.
- Eliminate sugary sodas or switch to diet drinks
- Fill up on non-starchy vegetables
- Prepare for blood-sugar lows by having hard candy or juice on hand
- Don’t rely on convenience stores for food sources