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The current stats show that 1.3 million Australians are living with diabetes. However, these stats don’t detail how many people are indirectly affected by diabetes such as family members and carers of those living with diabetes and also friends and health professionals offering support.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disorder of poor blood sugar control; specifically levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood are too high. Diabetes is classified into two types; type 1 insulin dependent (T1D) and type 2 non-insulin dependent (T2D). The hormone insulin works in the body to regulate blood sugar levels by allowing glucose to move from the blood into the cells to be used as energy. Diabetes may occur when insulin is not working to move glucose out of the blood and into the cells.

What can you do as a family to help prevent T2D and support loved ones with diabetes?

Learn the risk factors for type 2 diabetes

As a first step, there are various T2D risk factors to be mindful of including:

  • Family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight and obese especially abdominal adiposity
  • Poor diet – excess sugar and refined food, low intake of vegetables
  • Lack of physical activity
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased age
  • History of gestational diabetes

Learn the warning signs

Being aware of the most common signs of diabetes is an important part of prevention and early intervention, some of these signs include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Slow wound healing
  • Excessive urination
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Blurred vision
  • Weight loss (T1D) or gain (T2D)
  • Insatiable appetite

Promote healthy eating as a family

To elicit behaviour change, its important to take a family approach because this will help to create sustainable change. The first step when it comes to adopting a healthy diet is to seek out the right information. When we understand the reasoning behind what we are being asked to do, we are more likely to stick to it and also evolve in both our thinking and behaviour.

From a diet perspective, this may mean sitting down as a family with a health care practitioner and discussing the best eating approach, purchasing a book recommended by a health care practitioner or reading resources from a reliable source such as Diabetes Australia.

Once the right information is under your belt, the next step is starting to make changes!

The best way to achieve this is by making small incremental changes so the new approach doesn’t feel overwhelming or become too difficult. Pick an area your family could do better with, for example, a sugar rich dessert is served every night without fail and you feel this isn’t a good choice. Swap this dessert for a healthier option such as some fresh fruit with natural yoghurt and toasted coconut. Remember – taste and preference for food does not change overnight so while this dessert may not hit the sweet spot initially for everyone, overtime tastebuds will adjust and the initial dessert may be considered too sweet!

Another way to get the family involved in change is sharing ownership of the cooking and meal selections. Sit down as a family and brainstorm some meal ideas or pick from a cookbook. Following this, write the shopping list and then delegate cooking tasks to each family member. This can help to create more interest and excitement around food.

Set challenges, especially if your children are competitive – we all know diet diversity is important and eating as many as 30 different types of plants per week can benefit health – ask children to tally up how many different types they eat and see who has tried the most by the end of the week!

Promote an active lifestyle as a family

Regular physical activity is an important part of T2D prevention and management because exercise helps to improve insulin sensitivity and therefore assists with controlling blood sugar levels.

It’s common for family members to exercise at different times and do different forms of exercise. This doesn’t need to change and this form of structured exercise is still incredibly beneficial.

What can be changed is how you spend your time together as a family and seeking to be more active.

Some ways to be an active family include:

  • Going for a night walk after dinner
  • Taking the family pet for a walk
  • Going for bush walks, hikes, cycling or playing frisbee in the park on weekends
  • Hiring a tennis court and playing a game of tennis on the weekend
  • Going for a beach trip to swim or play cricket

Stress management

Stress plays an undeniable role in the development of many chronic diseases including T2D. This means, it’s important to think about ways to manage stress within your family environment and make sure your family has the necessary tools to cope with stress.

As a family you may find meditation or yoga of benefit. If so, schedule these practices in regularly.

Have an open door policy when it comes to talking about stressful situations – if necessary schedule in time to speak as a family to share anything bothering anyone.

Get outdoors! Being in nature such as green space has been shown to reduce cortisol, our stress hormone, if pent up stress needs to be released, plan an outdoor family walk or picnic.