When Blas Liriano began to feel dizzy and had an insatiable thirst, he saw his doctor.
The diagnosis: Prediabetes.
A native of the Dominican Republic, he regularly ate pork, white rice and beans and other foods high in sugar, salt and carbohydrates, among the worst foods you can eat if you are prediabetic or diabetic.
“I was told I would have to eat a balanced diet and try to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my meals,” Liriano said. “I also had to cut out any alcoholic beverages like beer and eat more whole grains. After monitoring my food and following the balanced diet for months, my blood sugar levels stabilized. But it’s something I have to stay on top of continuously.”
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Liriano’s plight is a familiar story to many U.S. Hispanics, whose age-adjusted rates of contracting diabetes rose 60 percent from 1997 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2010 and 2012, 12.8 percent of U.S. Hispanics 20 or older had diabetes, compared with 7.6 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 13.2 percent of non-Hispanic blacks, the CDC reports.
Among different groups of Hispanics, the rates varied: 8.5 percent for Central and South Americans, 9.3 percent for Cubans, 13.9 percent for Mexican Americans and 14.8 percent for Puerto Ricans.
In addition to having higher rates of contracting diabetes, Hispanics are about 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes or liver disease than non-Hispanic whites, according to the CDC.
Local hospitals and community centers are targeting Hispanics with outreach programs like community education, online resources and free screenings.
At the University of Miami medical school, a team of researchers is tailoring its programs to help Hispanics prevent or manage diabetes.
Baptist Health South Florida has partnered with Florida International University to develop a bilingual mass open online class or (MOOC) for diabetes. The free online course provides participants with tools to help them change their eating habits and exercise patterns.
The four-part module includes an overview of diabetes, type 1 and type 2, and gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy and often is a harbinger of contracting diabetes in the future. The class also highlights proper nutrition, medication and exercise. Since the course launched last November, about 200 people have signed up.
Lois Exelbert, a patient care manager at Baptist Hospital, leads a team of certified diabetes educators who are nurses, dietitians or pharmacists. They teach free outpatient classes offered two to three times a month in English and Spanish.
“There’s strong genetic predisposition,” Exelbert said. “It becomes more common if there are poor meal choices and if there’s inactivity, but that’s not the primary cause. Anyone in the population needs to eat regularly and eat balanced meals, including every food group. Highly concentrated sweets should be avoided.”
Sonia Angel, a registered dietitian who practices at Memorial Hospital in Broward and specializes in diabetes education, teaches patients who have been recently diagnosed or are prediabetic how to live with the condition, focusing on food and exercise.
Diabetes management is more than just following a diet; it’s a change in lifestyle, she and others noted. Most insurance companies will cover diabetes counseling or diabetes education once a person is diagnosed, Angel said. A good pre-meal blood sugar level should be between 80-130 she said; patients should be concerned if levels exceed 200 and should see a physician if those numbers peak.
“We estimate there are about 29 million American with diabetes, but prediabetes — there is a significant amount of people, about 80 million are at risk. It’s a high number. Hispanics are leading the prevalence of diabetes,” Angel said. “The main thing is if they have any family member with diabetes — and they’re Hispanic and overweight — they are at risk.
“There are two significant things to prevent it: losing weight cuts the risk in half and exercising. People should not wait until they have it; they need to be proactive and educate themselves as early as possible.”
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Baptist Health South Florida, working with Florida International University, offers free online courses in English and Spanish on how to manage your diabetes. For information, go to http://cpe.fiu.edu/moocs/diabetes-101-beyond-the-basics.php