Understanding Diabetes

There is no cure for diabetes, but it can be controlled. With the right care, people with diabetes can lead long, healthy lives. Taking steps to learn about and control this disease will help avoid long term problems with the eyes, heart, kidneys, feet, and nerves.

What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that causes high blood sugar.  Blood sugar builds up when the body cannot use sugar (glucose) from the foods we eat in the right way. 

A hormone called insulin is needed to move the sugar from the blood into the cells. When the body can't make enough insulin or use the insulin the right way, sugar builds up in the blood.

Dealing with Emotions
Denial. Anger. Depression. Stress. With diabetes you may feel any or all of these. You can work through it.

  • Denial. Denial is when you don't believe something is true. Most people go through denial when they are first told they have diabetes. Denial can stop you from doing what you need to do to control your diabetes.
  • Anger. You may be mad that you have diabetes. Mad that you need to make some changes in how you live. Anger can help motivate you.
  • Depression. People with diabetes may feel depressed. Talk to your doctor if you feel sad or hopeless.
  • Stress. Your blood sugar may rise when you are stressed. To reduce stress try deep breathing, tensing and then letting go of muscles in your body, going for a walk or talking to a friend.

Healthy Eating
Your blood sugar level is tied to the foods you eat. People with diabetes need to balance the type and amount of food they eat at each meal.

Do not worry. You do not need to eat special foods or have different foods for the rest of your family.

What are the simple rules for eating?

Try to eat 3 meals at about the same time each day.

Do not skip meals. Never go more than 4 to 6 hours without eating.

What Should I Eat?
  • Eat a protein (meat, fish, eggs, beans), a grain (bread, tortillas, rice, crackers), and a vegetable at each meal.
  • Choose foods high in fiber.
  • Cut down on how much you eat if you are trying to lose weight.
  • Limit soda and other drinks with sugar like juice. Drink more water instead.
  • Have low or nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Use small amounts of oil, butter and dressings. Look for the words "no trans-fats" on the food label.
How Much Should I Eat?

Pretend your plate is cut into four parts. Protein and starch (grains) should each fit on one of the four parts and vegetables should fit on the other two.

What About Sweets?
  • Any food can fit into your meal plan.
  • Eat less grain as part of your meal when you eat sweets.
  • You can use NutraSweet®, Equal® (aspartame), or Splenda® to sweeten your food and drinks.

Exercise means moving your body. Exercise lowers your blood sugar and helps you stay healthy.

There are lots of ways to move your body:
  • Aerobic exercise uses large muscles (arms and legs) and makes your heart beat faster. Examples include fast walking, swimming, bike riding and playing sports. Aim for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Strength training helps build muscle. You can use hand weights, elastic bands or weight machines. Or try using items in your home such as soup cans or milk cartons. Aim for three times a week.
  • Daily activities are things you do during the day to move your body like cleaning the house, playing with the kids, walking the dog or parking further away. Try to find ways to move more as you go about your day.
People with diabetes need to watch out for a few things when exercising.
  • Exercise can lower your blood sugar too much. Check your blood sugar level before exercise. If it is below 100 have a small snack and bring food or glucose tablets with you when you exercise.
  • Do not exercise when your blood sugar is very high.
  • Do not lift heavy weights if you have high blood pressure or eye problems.
  • Check your feet to make sure do not have cuts or sores which can be made worse by exercise or make exercise painful.
  • Drink plenty of water.

Talk to your doctor about the right type of exercise for you. Start slowly and choose things you like.


With diabetes you may:

  • Need to urinate (pee) a lot
  • Be very thirsty
  • Be very hungry
  • Lose weight
  • Be tired
  • Not see as well as you should.

If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor.

Avoid Complications

It is important to see your doctor often. You should also have the following tests each year:

  • Hemoglobin A1c: A blood test that looks at blood sugar levels over the past two to three months.
  • Eye exam
  • Foot exam

The best way to know how you're doing is to test your blood sugar at home. Testing at home is quick and easy. You will need a meter and test strips.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist how and when to do the test. Common times to test are before meals, at bedtime, and two hours after eating. Keep a log of your blood tests and medicines.


Pills. Your doctor may give you one or more pills to help control your diabetes. Each pill works in a different way. Always take your pill(s) the way your doctor tells you to. Tell your doctor about any side effects.

Insulin. If your body does not make insulin, or pills do not bring down your blood sugar enough, then you will need to take insulin. Insulin is given by shot. Ask your doctor to show you the right way to take insulin and in which parts of the body to inject it. When you take insulin, you must eat on time to avoid low blood sugar.

smiling older couple with tennis rackets

Putting It All Together

Controlling diabetes may be hard sometimes, but it is worth it. Here's how to put it all together:

  • Test your blood sugar. Ask your doctor when and how often to test.
  • Keep a record of your blood tests, your meals, exercise level and medicines. Take it with you when you go to the doctor.
  • Take your medicine as your doctor told you to.
  • Eat "balanced" meals with lean protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables at each meal.
  • Get moving! Start slowly, if you have not been active. Walking after meals is a great start.
  • Check your feet each day for cuts, red spots or swelling. Get your feet checked by a doctor each year.
  • If you smoke, quit! Talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
  • Brush your teeth and gums after meals. Floss every day, and see your dentist at least once a year.
  • Stay at a weight that is good for you. Ask your doctor how much you should weigh.