Diabetes: It’s different for women

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Diabetes strikes men and women in similar numbers, but it doesn’t affect them in the same way. Complications are different for women so it’s important to educate yourself whether you are newly diagnosed or have been living with diabetes for years.

Diabetes is a condition in which the body’s ability to produce insulin is impaired, resulting in elevated blood sugar (glucose) levels. Complications include nerve damage, kidney damage, blindness, and heart disease—and women with diabetes must be especially vigilant.

Internist Dr. Kenny Cole has studied and treated diabetes for more than 20 years. “According to one study,” he says, “when women have diabetes, they are six times more likely to develop heart disease than women without it. In men, the risk of heart disease is just two- to three-fold.”

Part of the reason, he says, is that women with diabetes are more likely than men to have poor blood glucose control, unhealthy cholesterol levels, to be obese, and have high blood pressure. And death by heart failure is also more common in women with diabetes.

“It’s due to biological differences in how they experience heart attacks,” he says. “Women may be more prone to experience nausea, shortness of breath, or back and jaw discomfort rather than the classic angina-type chest pain. This can delay diagnosis and treatment, leading to a higher risk of complications.”

Depression is also more common in women than in men. “In my own experience, I’ve found that women are more prone to emotional eating patterns or so called ‘stress’ eating, which can be exacerbated by depression and can in turn lead to obesity,” Dr. Cole says. “Many men have emotional eating habits, too, but in general, they have less body fat, more muscle mass, and in some cases, can handle extra calories more efficiently.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes is not just different for women, but among them, occurring more often in African American, Native American, and Hispanic/Latino women than white women.

The good news is that diabetes is manageable if patients make simple lifestyle changes—practicing good habits such as maintaining a healthy weight, controlling their blood pressure, monitoring blood sugar every day, and exercising regularly. It’s also important to quit smoking and to drink alcohol in moderation.

One of the smartest things diabetic patients can do is eat a healthy diet.

“For many women, the initial diagnosis of diabetes can be emotionally overwhelming, but with proper education and planning, you can not only control it, but you can prevent other illnesses,” said Terri Keller Nelson, MS, RD, LDN, and owner of Well Consulting LLC. She offers the following nutrition tips:

· Meet with a registered dietitian to develop a meal plan that suits your lifestyle.

· Keep a journal detailing your daily glucose readings, and food and beverage intake.

· Limit carb choices to two per meal. These include grains, starchy vegetables, fruit and fruit juice, milk and yogurt.

· Choose small portions of fibrous carbs such as vegetables, legumes and sweet potatoes.

· Eat lean meats such as chicken and fish.

“We all slip up from time to time,” Nelson adds. “But don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake. Diabetes is a manageable condition and a healthy diet is the first step toward controlling it.”

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