When Randy Jackson, the Grammy-winning producer and "American Idol" judge, learned he had type 2 diabetes in 2001, he weighed 360 pounds. At 45, he was in "the worst shape of my life," he says. For weeks he'd been feeling tired, thirsty and overheated. Even though his father was diabetic and took insulin shots, Jackson put off the trip to the doctor, thinking he just had a cold. "You don't think it's going to happen to you," he says ruefully.
Being overweight won't necessarily make you diabetic, but obesity and a lack of exercise contribute to the development of the disease in those with an underlying propensity toward it. Diabetics either produce too little insulin or their cells ignore it, a condition called "insulin resistance." Insulin takes glucose, broken down from the sugars and starches we eat, from the blood into the cells. Without it, glucose simply builds up in the blood instead of feeding the cells energy.
Most diabetics, like Jackson, develop insulin resistance as adults (type 1, a condition in which the immune system destroys the cells that make insulin, typically strikes the young). For reasons doctors still don't understand, their cells no longer use the hormone properly. And as the need for insulin grows, the pancreas gradually becomes unable to produce more. The immediate effects are fatigue and dizziness, but over time high blood-glucose levels can cause damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart. Without proper care, diabetics are at risk for heart attacks, blindness and foot amputations. There are about 86,000 diabetes-related amputations annually in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The number one killer of type 2 diabetics is heart disease.
An estimated 20.8 million Americans are now diabetic (5 to 10 percent of whom have type 1 diabetes). Of those, doctors estimate 6.2 million haven't been diagnosed. Another 54 million Americans have "prediabetic" elevated blood-glucose levels. (Check out your own risk by taking the test at diabetes.org.)
Scary as all that sounds, most type 2 diabetics can control their blood-glucose levels and symptoms by eating a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining a good weight and taking oral medications when needed. After a gastric bypass operation, Jackson reduced his weight to 230 pounds. He checks the level of glucose in his blood once a day and occasionally takes oral medications to get his glucose down. Gone are the luscious pies and cakes he grew up with as a child in Louisiana. The Jackson diet today includes plenty of vegetables and very few sweets. "Food is for nutrition now," says Jackson, who is helping the American Heart Association get the word out about the disease.
For more information on the disease, check out the American Diabetes Association Web site.