How you can be really healthy even with type 2 diabetes

3076979758_fa8fc16f87Type 2 diabetes is scary:  it’s a chronic, progressive disease.

“Chronic” means that there’s no cure; it doesn’t go away (despite unreliable claims to the contrary you may see on the internet).

“Progressive” means that—as the years go by—it gets worse and worse.

Here’s what you have to look forward to, if you don’t manage type 2 diabetes over the long haul:

  • increased risk of a heart attack or  stroke,
  • irreversible damage to your eyes, kidneys, and blood vessels, and
  • blindness, kidney failure,  and amputation of all or part of your legs

YOU:  Wait a minute.  Am I reading this right? A person can have this terrible disease and still be really healthy?

ME:  Yes, but first you need to know that you have it. There’s  one thing worse than knowing that you have type 2 diabetes, and that’s having it and not knowing it. The reason is that if you don’t know your have the disease, you’re not  managing it to avoid long-term, progressive damage.

In fact, the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse estimated that in 2007, there were 23.6 million people with type 2 diabetes in the U.S., including 5.7 million people who didn’t know that they had it. This happens because a person may have no symptoms or have symptoms but avoid going to a doctor or attribute his symptoms to some other less serious condition.

But I know that I have type 2 diabetes, and here’s what I’m doing to be really healthy anyway.

1.  Getting regular check-ups

I see my doctor (or the physician’s assistant) three times a year and see an ophthalmologist once a year to check my retinas. So far my retinas are normal. 

2.  Exercising nearly every day

Usually I walk 2 to 3 miles at a moderate rate and track my exercise on the President’s Challenge website at  In August, for example, I exercised on 25 out of 31 days. It’s not a chore, because I love being out on the Burke-Gilman Trail (shown above) with its spectacular views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains and the dazzling array of birds.

 3.  Eating a healthful diet

I also love to cook and share a tasty, nutritious meal with my BF. Last night we had Coho salmon from Alaska, sourdough wheat bread, and stir-fried vegetables (a yummy mix of kohlrabi, bok choy, red bell pepper, sweet onion, and green beans). For desert we each had a 100-calorie CarbSmart fudge bar made with Splenda instead of sugar.

My BF also has type 2 diabetes. He told me that when he got the diagnosis, one of his fears was that he’d have to “eat cardboard for the rest of my life.”  And when a nutritionist told him that he should eat more fish, he was dismayed. He hated fish or at least he thought he did,  until he took a job in Seattle and started eating Pacific salmon (and met me).

4.  Measuring my blood glucose levels

When you have Type 2 diabetes, your body can’t control the levels of glucose (sugar) in your blood. So the glucose levels go too high (which causes progressive damage) or too low (which is generally easy and quick to treat by consuming something with sugar in it).

Because of the type and amount of food I eat, my blood glucose levels don’t tend to go very high. So I don’t need to measure them very often. Sometimes, I take a reading before a meal and two hours afterward to see how I’m doing.

But I always measure my blood glucose before I start to exercise. If the levels are a little low,  I’ll carry an energy bar with me or even eat it before I set out.

5.  Taking my medications 

I also take my medications religously, using my nerdy plastic pill-case with the days of the week  on it. Every day I take a statin drug to control high-cholesterol (which I’ve had ever since I was in my thirties).

Initially, my doctor also prescribed a drug to treat diabetes, but later it turned out that I no longer needed it because I was managing so well by diet and exercise alone.  I was very happy to hear that.

YOU:  OK, You convinced me. Sort of. I guess you can be really healthy, even if you have type 2 diabetes.  But I still hope I don’t get it.

ME:  I hope so too!  My life would be simpler if I didn’t have type 2 diabetes, but think of it this way:  The regular doctor’s appointments, eating healthy, and exercising regularly are things I should be doing anyway.  In fact, they’re things I was doing anyway.  They’re things everyone should be doing anyway (except for the extra doctor’s appointments).

So the only thing I do to be really healthy—that I wouldn’t be doing anyway—is measuring my blood glucose. And that’s become such a habit that I barely think of it.

Photo by Bjorn

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 09/04/2009, 12:03 pm

    Thank you for the comment. Certainly, there is a lot that people like us can do to manage our health. And so often, a big part of managing a chronic condition is eating a healthful diet and getting regular exercise. It takes some work, but what’s more important than taking care of the only body you have?

    What you say is so true. It’s sad to see people giving up or going into denial about their health. I think that part of the problem may be that we hear a lot about “preventing” disease but not enough about “managing” a chronic condition once we find out that we have it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote about my experience.

  • Anastasiya 09/03/2009, 6:55 pm

    Madeleine, I enjoyed reading your article so much. I don’t have diabetes and nobody in my family has it (thanks God!) I think that this information is so valuable though. I’ve met so many people who give up on life, exercise, simple joys just because they are diagnosed with this disease. They think that they are doomed and no matter what they do their condition will not improve. They think that they have been cheated by life and they cannot live to their fullest any more. After reading your article I see that this is not true. You decide yourself what your life will be no matter whether you have a chronic condition or not.

  • Kye 09/03/2009, 7:31 am

    Madeleine, I’m happy that I don’t have diabetes–but I have had another chronic condition all my adult life and your message rings true. You can be radiantly healthy with a chronic illness. It sounds contradictory, but you explain very well, why it’s not.