“The best thing patients with diabetes can do for themselves is to change their dietary habits,” says Sue Cotey, RN, CDE, Program Coordinator of the Lennon Diabetes Center at Cleveland Clinic Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center. “Proper nutrition can often be more powerful than medication when it comes to treating diabetes. Some people will notice a difference in as little as a day.”
But any kind of change is difficult, particularly when it comes to food. “Food is so tied to emotions,” she says. “From traditional cultural dishes to grandmother’s recipes, food is a big part of many celebrations, and some people actually are offended when told they need to change their diets.”
Why is healthy eating so important for people with diabetes? Eating nutritionally balanced meals helps to control blood glucose (blood sugars), cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels, reducing the risk of diabetes-related health problems.
A common misconception is that a healthy diet of unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits and lean meats is more expensive, is more difficult to find in urban neighborhoods and takes more time to prepare. Not necessarily so, says Ms. Cotey.
“Our diabetes educational team, along with a registered dietitian, explored the East Cleveland neighborhood around the center to see what types of food were available,” she says. “We visited chain grocery stores, family-owned grocery stores and even a farmers market and discovered many reasonably priced healthy food options.”
To make healthy options more accessible, Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center has started a farmers market on Tuesdays and offers free, hands-on classes teaching people how to cook differently. In addition, the center provides transportation at no charge to the center for appointments for those living within a five-mile radius.
Reaching out for support
When initially faced with a diagnosis of diabetes, many patients feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, according to Ms. Cotey. The center, along with many other Cleveland Clinic locations, offers diabetes programs to help patients succeed in managing all aspects of diabetes care.
Class topics include eating better, being physically active, monitoring blood sugars and interpreting results, taking medications safely and reducing risks of complications, and setting personal goals for managing diabetes.
“Once patients join a diabetes education program, they learn that they’re not alone. Everyone in the group feels the same way and is facing the same challenges,” says Ms. Cotey. “And because family is so important — and may someday face the same challenges — we encourage our group members to bring their families to the classes and also share what they’ve learned with neighbors and friends.”