For Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, pre-diabetes wasn’t just a wake-up call. It was an opportunity to break down the stigma around a disease that had already taken a toll on her community and family.
She’s opened up about her health and has narrated a new documentary, “A Touch of Sugar,” which features the stories of people living with diabetes.
Davis says she was surprised and frightened when she first learned she had pre-diabetes — a precursor to diabetes that affects about 1 in 3 American adults — about two years ago.
“Not many things scare me, but that was one thing that did,” Davis told AARP.
For Davis, who also stars in the series “How to Get Away with Murder,” diabetes runs in the family. She lost an aunt to the disease and two of her sisters have been diagnosed with it.
Like many people with pre-diabetes who don’t know they have it, Davis believed she ate right and exercised. But the diagnosis strengthened her resolve.
“I buckled down and said, ‘You know what? I need to educate myself, I need to change my lifestyle,’” she said.
Her initial fear has been replaced with optimism. She says taking control over her health has left her feeling better in mind and body.
Damon Tanton, MD, medical director of clinical practice at the AdventHealth Diabetes Institute, says identifying and treating pre-diabetes now can prevent much bigger health problems down the road.
What Is Pre-Diabetes?
It comes down to food. When we eat, our body converts food into sugars. A hormone called insulin takes these sugars from the blood into our cells, where they’re used for energy.
For reasons we don’t fully understand, this process begins to go wrong in people with pre-diabetes. Their insulin doesn’t work right, leading to high levels of blood sugar and insulin.
A person whose blood sugar is higher than normal may have pre-diabetes. If their blood sugar continues to rise, they may develop diabetes.
In addition to helping control blood sugar, insulin has another role: It stores fat.
“Simply put, the higher your circulating insulin levels, the higher your chances of developing the dreaded ‘tire’ around your midsection,” Dr. Tanton says. High insulin levels can also cause:
- Elevated testosterone and irregular menstruation in women
- Low testosterone levels in men
- Many forms of cancer
For more facts about pre-diabetes, check out our post.
Do You Have Pre-Diabetes?
The lack of symptoms can make it hard to tell if you have pre-diabetes. But there are signs to look out for, Dr. Tanton says, including the following:
- Difficulty losing fat around your midsection
- Daily cravings for sweets and carbs
- Feeling sleepy after eating
- Feeling shaky when you go without food for several hours
- A darkening of the skin creases in the neck, armpits and/or groin
- Having parents, siblings or children who are carrying extra fat around their belly
If you think you may have pre-diabetes, ask your doctor about it. He or she may perform what’s called a “fasting plasma glucose” test. After not eating or drinking anything except water for eight hours, you take a blood test that measures the amount of sugar in your blood.
Diabetes is even more common among African-Americans, who are more than twice as likely as Caucasian people to have it.
One way to measure whether you have pre-diabetes, in addition to high blood sugar, is to test the blood for insulin. When the body can’t use insulin as well, called “insulin resistance,” it starts to make more and more of it.
But you can break this cycle.
How to Take Control Over Pre-Diabetes
Getting pre-diabetes doesn’t mean you’ll eventually get diabetes, Dr. Tanton says. By changing our diet and exercising more, we can take control of pre-diabetes. A medication called metformin may also be able to help.
“By aggressively treating at this early stage, you can prevent, or at least postpone, the progression to diabetes,” Dr. Tanton said.
Davis says diabetes was viewed with a sense of inevitability when she was growing up in South Carolina. Even after her aunt lost a leg — diabetes can cause slow-healing foot ulcers that can require amputation — “you just sort of waited for it,” she told AARP.
Watching your carbs is a key point of healthy eating, but you don’t have to eliminate them. You might be surprised at what you can eat with diabetes.
For Davis, new eating guidelines weren’t restricting; they were empowering.
“We don't have to accept those food choices that have been given to us in the past. When you are armed with education in terms of food and exercise, you begin to understand how to manage this disease,” she says.
For example, she still cooks collard greens but uses chicken broth instead of the traditional bacon or pork drippings.
The team at AdventHealth Diabetes Institute has the experience to help people make lasting changes to the food they eat. Its Center for Nutritional Excellence has registered dietitians who offer personalized services to help you create the sort of plan you can stick to.