health management

Diabetes is not a life sentence: How Filipinos can manage the ‘lifestyle disease’ from home

Steph Arnaldo

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Diabetes is not a life sentence: How Filipinos can manage the ‘lifestyle disease’ from home
No, sugar substitutes aren't always better for you. Check out these nutritionist-approved diet tips for diabetics looking to take control of their health.

It’s highly likely that you have at least one member in the family with diabetes.

Diabetes runs rampant around the world, and most especially in the Philippines. According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), as of 2019, approximately 463 million adults (20-79 years) are living with diabetes, with a 6.3% prevalence of diabetes in adults in the Philippines (one in 14 Filipinos live with diabetes).  

This chronic metabolic disorder characterized by hyperglycemia continues to be one of the most common diseases suffered by many Filipinos, and most don’t even know they have it until it’s too late.

Silent but deadly

Many may not be aware of this “silent killer” for decades – most of the time, alarming symptoms are only realized when the condition is already at its worst. Diabetes is a known predecessor to other severe diseases, like hypertension, heart attacks, and kidney disease, and is most common in obese or overweight individuals who live mostly sedentary lifestyles.

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with diabetes, or know someone who has, remember: diabetes is not a life sentence! Rather, it is considered a manageable lifestyle disease that can be treated holistically with an integrated approach that goes beyond just medicine.

Does this overwhelm you? It shouldn’t, Dr. Amal Makhloufi, Country Lead of healthcare solutions company Sanofi Philippines told Rappler during a November 25 media event called Sweet Talk Your Way Out of Diabetes. Why not let the term “lifestyle disease” empower you instead?

The key word to note here is “lifestyle” – this means that your condition can be managed by changing how you live your daily life. Dr. Amal suggests three simple but powerful habits: choosing the right kind of diet, engaging in regular exercise, and checking your blood sugar levels regularly.

“Diabetes management is empowerment, and it’s done on a daily basis, not quarterly,” Dr. Amal said. “You may have to take medicines every day for the rest of your life, but you will get used to it.” Dr. Amal also said that people with diabetes can live a normal, active life – you just has to be aware that you have it and know what to do.

Do or diet: The power of food

Food isn’t your enemy when it comes to disease; in fact, it plays a key part in your healing! Choosing the right kinds of foods, as well as practicing moderation and balance, are what’s important. It’s not so much about restricting yourself to the point of hunger or despair, or overcomplicating your diet with sugar substitutes – you don’t have to feel like you’re depriving yourself.

Bianca Dualan, registered dietician and founder of nutritional wellness organization Sakro, wants Filipinos to know that a “simple and practical approach” is best, and that being healthy can and should be easy, accessible, affordable, and fun. Bianca said that a healthy diet can help manage many diseases and imbalances in the body, such as skin allergies, poor gut health, digestive issues, diabetes, and heart disease.

You might be thinking: “I know, I know. Just avoid table sugar. I can have all the Stevia and honey I want!” Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t true. Here are some practical, easy tips to remember as you embark on your journey to better health and wellness!

Watch out for sneaky sugars

Be watchful of your sugar intake when you grocery shop, Bianca said, and always keep an eye on the items you buy. Sugar is the sneakiest culprit, because they’re not just found in the obvious choices of cookies, pastries, and wafers. 

“Sugar can be found in lots of different packaged items, like the less obvious ones such as chips, crackers, sauces, homemade bottled goods, and even dressings,” Bianca said. If you already know what sugar can look like, you’ll be able to make better decisions easier.

Be wary of “sugar-free” items as well, because that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthier for you either. “When it comes to pastries or drinks, it’s always better to sweeten them at home yourself than buying it in stores,” Bianca said.

Prioritize whole foods

It goes without saying that whole foods are way better for our bodies, compared to store-bought items, processed meats, fast food, and canned goods. Whole foods are minimally or not processed at all, and are the farm-to-table items we enjoy like vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Whole foods have no added fat, sugar, or sodium in them, unlike items manufactured in factories or plants.

“Whole foods is key for a holistic approach. There are certain vegetables and fruits that are high-fiber and have a low glycemic index/glycemic load that help in diabetes,” Bianca said. Most of these vegetables can also help fight skin aging, aid in weight loss, and increase your energy levels.

A high-fiber diet is recommended for diabetic patients, since soluble fiber can help slow the absorption of sugar and improve blood sugar levels. A low glycemic diet is also important, because these foods don’t spike your blood sugar levels as high as other items do.

Keeping a well-stocked pantry of the good stuff can get overwhelming, but local produce shop Gising Gising is here to make healthy living easier and more accessible for diabetics via the Panata Box (P1,250), specially made for those with diabetes.

The Panata Box packs anti-inflammatory and high-fiber local fruits and veggies like mango, pineapple, avocado, tomato, okra, amapalaya, sigarilyas, kangkong, malunggay, corn, siling labuyo, ginger, turmeric, and bell pepper.

Gising Gising delivers carefully curated boxes of veggies and fruits, ethically-sourced from local farming communities. For every Panata Box sold, Gising Gising also shares a box to patients from the Philippine Diabetes Support organization.

Subtract, not substitute

When it comes to sugar swaps, don’t think that just because it’s not sugar, it’s automatically better for you. Whether that’s Stevia, honey, molasses, maple syrup, Xylitol, or coconut sugar, Bianca said that having too much of a substitute becomes counterproductive in the long run.

“Just cut down on sugar wherever and whenever you can. No matter what sweetener you use, make sure to just use 1/4 of the original recipe,” she said. It’s also time to get fun and creative in the kitchen – for example, take advantage of spices when making your favorite sweet drinks or pastries, like using cinnamon and nutmeg when flavoring hot cocoa or cookies.

“You can also even heat your milk at a lower temperature, to bring out its natural sweetness,” Bianca said.

It’s all about learning how to make smarter swaps. Looking to sweeten your salad dressing? Try using watermelon juice or cubes. Craving for a creamy smoothie? Use yogurt instead of ice cream. Sweetening your homemade iced tea? Mix in some fresh ginger and lemongrass! Making bread? Add malunggay for a heartier taste and added nutrition.

“You can eat almost anything, just make sure you choose what you eat and control it. Don’t starve yourself! Just watch your sugar, increase your fiber and water intake, and prioritize a balanced meal of carbohydrates, protein, and fat,” Bianca said. Sanofi also recommends to lessen alcohol consumption, avoid red meat, use less salt, and opt for brown rice over refined carbohydrates.

Do I have it? What a doctor wants you to know

Aside from being proactive about your condition, diagnosing it early on can be very helpful in managing the lifestyle disease. However, symptoms may not present themselves until later in life, and by the time they do, cardiovascular complications may already be on the way. It’s critical to not let diabetes progress to other diseases.

Dr. Amal said that if you feel like you are at risk for diabetes because it runs in the family, get yourself checked as soon as possible. Don’t wait! All it takes is a simple blood test to measure the levels of blood sugar in your body.

“Being overweight and having hypertension also go hand in hand,” Dr. Amal said.

Because it is a lifestyle disease, Dr. Amal said that it is up to you to take charge of your health and nutrition. Exercise to avoid an inactive lifestyle. Form new healthy habits for yourself, and break the ones that you may have inherited from your parents. These all complement working closely with your doctor and getting your blood sugar levels checked regularly.

Most importantly, don’t forget to stay positive. “Diabetes is not the end of your life. You can live a normal life with diabetes. Just always be aware, do your research, and have the willingness to take control.” You got this! –

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.