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Sun, Not Soda!

You may not realize it, but simple choices about what you eat and where you spend your time can protect you from diabetes.

Dr. Sarfraz Zaidi doesn’t like stress, sugar and starchy foods—and with good reason. According to the California-based diabetes expert, too much of any one can be deadly.

“Poor choices when it comes to eating, a lack of exercise, and too much stress are three of the factors that are leading to a diabetes epidemic amongst young people in the United States, in India, and pretty much everywhere,” says Dr. Zaidi, an American endocrinologist, author and public speaker, whose parents hail from New Delhi. And, says the doctor, many young people who put themselves at risk of contracting diabetes are not even aware that they are doing it.

Shining a Light on Diabetes

In recent years, India has seen an enormous increase in diabetes patients, says Dr. Bernhard Weigl, principal investigator for Point-of-Care Diagnostics for Global Health at PATH in Seattle, Washington. With that increase has come an unexpected challenge: How can doctors test for diabetes quickly, effectively and affordably?

“The most common way is to take someone’s blood while they are fasting and test for glucose levels,” says Dr. Weigl. “But that means that if someone comes in to see a doctor with symptoms, they have to come back again for the test having fasted beforehand. It adds cost, and a lot of people just don’t come back. When you’re trying to deal with such a widespread disease, this is a big problem.” Luckily, by collaborating with fellow experts in India, the doctor may have found a solution.

While participating in a workshop in Hyderabad, in 2008, Dr. Weigl met Dr. V. Mohan, an Indian diabetes specialist, and the two became research partners. Funded by the Indian and American governments, their team has been working to bring a new technology to India, one that quickly and effectively tests patients for diabetes using nothing more than a beam of light.

“The device shines a light into your underarm and then measures the natural fluorescence that comes back from the skin,” says Dr. Weigl. “The light that comes back helps determine the amount of a chemical called AGE, or advanced glycation endproducts, which corresponds to diabetes risk. It’s fast and non-invasive, like using a blood pressure cuff.”

As of the writing of this article, the device is in evaluation in Chennai, under the direction of Dr. Mohan at the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation. “The machine is still relatively expensive, but because it’s quick and you don’t use any disposable materials—all you do is put your arm on it—on a per-test basis, it’s very cheap,” says Dr. Weigl. “We believe that the machines could be a great solution throughout India, and in other countries as well.” —M.G.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects millions of people around the world. Left untreated, diabetics have higher amounts of sugar in their blood because their bodies cannot properly produce or use insulin, a hormone that controls how cells react to sugar. Patients may suffer from different types of diabetes, but they all can lead to major health problems if they are not treated properly.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the body produces little or no insulin. “You have to take insulin in the form of insulin shots or an insulin pump to survive,” says Dr. Zaidi. “It usually affects children and teenagers, but can occasionally strike a grown-up as well. It is an autoimmune disorder—your immune system starts to attack and kill your own insulin producing cells.”

Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, occurs when the body’s cells become resistant to the action of insulin. “It typically used to affect grown-ups, but now it is affecting more and more teenagers,” says the doctor. The good news? By making smart and informed choices, the risks of getting the disease can be reduced.

Eating right—specifically, staying away from excessive amounts of sugar and carbohydrates—is a key factor in avoiding Type 2 diabetes.

“Especially in Indian culture, people eat both rice and bread at the same time, which is not good for people at risk for developing diabetes,” says the doctor. “Vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts and most fruits are great to eat, and a little bread is fine, but get rid of the rice, and don’t drink soda—even if it says ‘zero calories.’ They still add artificial sweeteners and sugar
substitutes, and all of them are bad for your health.” The doctor also recommends choosing fresh fruit over fruit juices, which are often spiked with extra sugar.

“This is a good diet for everyone,” Dr. Zaidi continues, especially for pre-diabetics and diabetics, and can help them control their blood sugar level.”

The doctor also points out that a sedentary lifestyle, where people spend too much time watching TV, typing and texting, can increase the risk of diabetes. “Our lifestyle is changing, especially in the urban population in India,” he says. “Instead of spending time outdoors playing sports, young people are hooked on video games and spending time on the Internet. It’s a rapid change happening in India and the lack of exercise makes insulin resistance worse.”

Stress is another risk factor for diabetes that Dr. Zaidi warns against. “People in India, in their 20s, 30s and 40s are getting heart attacks and angioplasties,” he says. “Some of them are very physically active and take control of their diet, but if you are too stressed out, stress can literally kill you.” The doctor encourages everyone to take time to relax, meditate or do anything else that can lower stress. “I’ve seen my diabetic patients go on vacation with no cell phones,” he says. “They come back and their blood sugar is perfectly fine. Stress increases the amount of a chemical called cortisol, which is linked to the increase in blood sugar—so making time to relax is very important.”

One risk factor for diabetes that might come as a surprise? Not getting enough sun. “Vitamin D is a hormone and its receptors are on almost every organ in the body,” says Dr. Zaidi. “It’s extremely important to our overall health, and can also help prevent diabetes. The main natural source of Vitamin D is [the] sun,” he continues. Since many people do not spend enough time outside, Dr. Zaidi encourages many of his patients to consider Vitamin D supplements.

Even if you already have either type of diabetes, there are many proactive ways to manage the disease, reduce your risk of complications, and still live a vibrant life, says Dr. Zaidi. He recommends five steps, in order of importance: “Nothing will work if you don’t change your diet,” affirms the doctor, “and you have to find time to exercise as well. Stress management is also crucial, as is taking the right vitamins and being on the right medications. People think that if you are on a drug, the medicine will take care of everything—not true! You should take all of these five steps.”

The doctor’s final advice? “Life and health are all about balance, so don’t lose your perspective or get lost in today’s high pace[d] life,” he says. “Always try to remember what is truly important!”


Simple definition of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin—Type 1 diabetes—or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces, known as Type 2. Insulin’s job is to help the body manage blood sugar by transporting the sugar in your bloodstream to your cells to be used as fuel.

Risk factors
High sugar and high carbohydrate diet.
Lack of exercise.
Lack of sun and vitamin D.

Eat more vegetables, fruits and proteins and less refined carbohydrates and sugars—especially processed sugary foods like soda, candy and juices.
Get outside, get some sun and exercise.
Do what it takes to relax.
Consult with your doctor and get on the right vitamins or medication, if necessary.
Learn more from online sites like www.mayoclinic.com/health/diabetes/DS01121


Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.