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How to Take Control of Type 2 Diabetes

With the right steps, you can live well with—and even reverse—type 2 diabetes.

By Amy Lynn Smith

Like many of us, Eleanor Gaspari West kept promising herself she’d lose weight. She’d tried weight-loss programs, but nothing stuck. Then “a light bulb went off,” she says.

During a routine checkup, her doctor completed an A1C test—a screening that measures your average blood glucose level over the previous three months. West’s result was 6.8, which put her over 6.4—and in the diabetic range. That was the wake-up call Eleanor needed.

“They put me on a pill and I went on a diet. I just kept eating right and started walking. With every 10 pounds I’d lose, I’d feel better and better,” says West, who is 63 and lives in Chicago. “I wanted to nip it in the bud.” Over the next few months, West worked hard to build a healthier lifestyle. “I did this for myself, and I am so much happier because of the decisions I’ve made,” says Eleanor Gaspari West.

Three factors to consider if you’re living with diabetes

1. Eating right is especially important if you have diabetes.

In general, you want to eat foods that are low in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and salt. Opt for fresh, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole- grain breads and pastas. Avoid sodas and juice. Also, be realistic.

It’s smart to limit sugar and carbs, but “if rice has been a big part of your diet for 50 or 60 years, it’s not realistic to expect you to cut out rice completely,” explains Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Clover Health. “Talk to a nutritionist who can suggest changes to your diet that are achievable for you.”

West came up with an eating plan that works for her but still lets her enjoy life: no fried foods, no fast foods, limiting bread and sweets, and sticking to healthier options like chicken, fish, and salads. She has an occasional treat, such as ice cream, but always watches portion sizes.

2. Physical activity is another part of the equation. 

Even a little bit of physical activity every day is helpful—but the more you exercise, the more likely you’ll manage your diabetes and lower your need for medication. “Starting low and slow is fine,” adds Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist and Chief Clinical Information Officer at Clover Health. “Figure out what kind of activity gives you joy. It might be a walk with a friend, an exercise class, or ballroom dancing. Enjoy yourself!”

For West, walking was the way to go. She’s worked her way up to walking 30 miles a week! She also builds muscle and tone with the help of her niece, who is a personal trainer.

3. Checkups are critical to managing diabetes. 

Six months after starting her new healthy habits, West had lost about 35 pounds and her A1C went down to 5.5. Her doctor confirmed that she no longer had type 2 diabetes. With smart choices and plenty of commitment, she had reversed her diagnosis. 

A Plan for Life

Today—after two years on her new routine—West has lost 67 pounds! And she has no intention of going back. She’s so proud of her journey to better health that she loves sharing her story and posting updates on Facebook. Her before-and-after photos tell a tale of hard work and perseverance. “I did this for myself, and I am so much happier because of the decisions I’ve made,” says West. “I don’t want to take a chance on the problems diabetes can cause, like kidney disease or amputations.”

West is right that diabetes can cause complications, especially if it’s not controlled. Other complications include eye diseases, vascular disease, and nerve damage. Many people with diabetes also have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. “Type 2 diabetes is a manageable condition,” Dr. Chang says. “Plus, the newer types of oral medications, when combined with better diet and exercise, can help people avoid insulin use. And there’s evidence that people who are willing to change their diet significantly can actually reverse their diabetes.”

Smart, practical choices go a long way toward managing—and even stopping—diabetes. And here’s a bonus: With a healthier diet and more physical activity, you’ll also prevent many other health problems. West agrees. “I am going to live the rest of my life healthier!”