(This article is part of Virginia Gay Hospital’s bi-annual publication, “Thrive” Fall/Winter 2017 issue. An online version of the entire publication can be found at https://myvgh.org/thrive/)

A Type II Diabetes diagnosis gave Maureen Haisman and her family an opportunity to get serious about healthy habits and good nutrition.

When she received a diagnosis of Type II diabetes, Maureen Haisman felt like it was the beginning of the end. “My dad was diabetic and my mother’s family had a history of diabetes,” explains Maureen. “My sister is diabetic as well. I knew that if I didn’t do something, diabetes was going to kill me.”

There are two types of diabetes. Telling them apart can be confusing because both involve imbalances of insulin, but the differences are important to understand. Your body breaks food down and in the process of digestion, glucose is secreted by the pancreas. The energy for life comes from insulin moving glucose from the bloodstream into the cells.

Type I diabetes, also known as “juvenile diabetes” because it is most commonly diagnosed in children, occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin. Treating this condition requires close monitoring of glucose levels in the blood and administration of insulin through shots or an insulin pump.

Type II diabetes is the result of a complex interplay between obesity, carbohydrates and sugar, and genetic predisposition, resulting in either insulin resistance or an inability to produce enough insulin. With resistance, insulin can’t move glucose into the cells. The glucose builds up in the bloodstream, and the buildup of glucose damages eyes, kidneys, nerves and the heart.

Type II diabetes is one of the growing “lifestyle illnesses” becoming increasingly common throughout the world. As packaged and processed foods have become more available in developing countries, obesity and Type II diabetes are also becoming more prevalent. More people in the world are now overweight than underweight. Much of this increase is caused because we can design, package and transport manufactured foods that are inexpensive, high in calories and low in nutrients. The result is a rapidly growing number of people who are both obese and malnourished. Our food choices are part of what is causing a worldwide explosion of Type II diabetes.

Type II diabetes can be treated with medication and lifestyle change, the kind of change most everyone finds very difficult to accomplish, and the older we get the more difficult it seems to become. Maureen doesn’t accept the idea that being 75 years old means change can’t be accomplished. “I’m not about to give myself a bye because of age,” says Maureen. “If the challenge is now then now is the time to act.”

It was a blood test during a routine health visit that helped Maureen get an early start on her road to overcoming her Type II diagnosis. Early diagnosis is a key to successfully treating Type II diabetes because when a diagnosis is made early, often called pre-diabetes, changing lifestyle habits can return the body to a non-diabetic balance much more quickly and without long-term damage. Untreated, diabetes can result in amputations, blindness and many other debilitating outcomes.

“I was in the diabetic range but it was an early diagnosis, and my doctor asked if I wanted to enter a medically-monitored weight loss program,” explains Maureen. “I wasn’t against that option, but it is expensive and I would have to drive to Cedar Rapids. As a retired person I don’t have a lot of money waiting around to be spent, and though I can drive in traffic, I don’t enjoy it.”

Maureen’s son Rich and daughter-in-law Shelley are teachers in the Vinton-Shellsburg School District and live just outside of town. Maureen didn’t know for sure what to do, but she knew she could count on Rich and Shelley for ideas and support.

“Mom seemed to feel defeated,” says Rich, “and that’s not like my mom. She was a social worker who dealt with a lot of really bad situations involving abused children, and she also ran a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She was the person who had to testify in court about what she’d seen in the home, and she was the person who was threatened by angry and often violent people. She does not give up just because the challenge is difficult, so I knew that with a little support she would tackle this thing head on.”

As with any behavioral health change, having loved ones and others you can rely on for support can be a key component to achieving positive change. Thanks to Maureen’s outgoing personality, she had both family and friends to encourage her.

For Rich and his wife Shelley it was an opportunity for the entire family to get more serious about good nutrition. Shelley and Rich became more serious about adopting the lifestyle changes Maureen needed to adopt if she were to avoid diabetic complications.

One component of the family’s plan was to make better food more convenient. “When we’re hungry we want something fast, but we pay a high price for those fast, convenient foods because they are generally not good for us,” says Rich. “One strategy we use is to make jar salads in advance because they keep well and they’re easy to grab when we’re hungry.”

Making the salads for Rich, Shelley and Maureen is a family activity. Meat is cooked, vegetables are cleaned and chopped, and everyone builds various salads they want from everything that is available. “I’ve often found changing my dietary intake difficult to accomplish because of two big issues,” shares Shelley. “I used to think about what I couldn’t have, and as soon as you do that, you feel deprived. The second challenge I’ve often faced is an all-or-nothing attitude. I would let one doughnut knock me off the path.”

For Rich, Shelley and Maureen the focus has been on eating the healthy foods they like and staying committed to progress, not perfection.

The entire family feels better and has lost a few pounds, but Maureen is the star of the show. Her blood tests show that glucose levels are back to normal and she is no longer pre-diabetic, but solidly in the normal healthy range.

“The problems we create for ourselves take decades to show up,” says Maureen, “and so we have decades of practice doing the wrong things. I know I’m doing the right thing when something green and leafy tastes really good, or a strawberry tastes like the best dessert I’ve ever had. When you get to that point, the whole world looks brighter.”

Anatomy of a Salad Jar

Busy lifestyles can make healthy food choices difficult. Rather than reaching for fast food options, consider following the Haisman’s example and make a family activity out of building salad jars in advance.