HealthChats: Managing diabetes through lifestyle changes


In the United States over 34 million people live with diabetes. Of those 34 million, somewhere in the range of 90-95% have type 2 diabetes while the remaining 5-10% have type 1 diabetes.

“For some patients who maybe have been living a really busy lifestyle with lots of stress going on and maybe haven’t been paying as much attention to their health as some other aspects of their life, getting the diagnosis of diabetes can be a real wake-up call to re-evaluate their priorities and maybe their lifestyle and might be kind of that extra push that they need to get them on a healthier path,” explained Pharmacotherapy Assistant Professor Cheyenne Newsome at last month’s HealthChats seminar.

The HealthChats seminar series was created to inform the community on current topics related to health. Allen I. White Distinguished Associate Professor Joshua Neumiller and Assistant Professor Cheyenne Newsome shared their expertise on diabetes in a panel discussion including what people can do to protect themselves from this growing disease.

Treatment for people living with diabetes can come in a variety of forms depending on their progression and type of diabetes. For type 1 diabetes, often called insulin dependent diabetes, patients need insulin injections or a pump to manage blood sugar. However, since the more common type 2 diabetes is greatly based on lifestyle and weight, a change to lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the first place. In studies of patients with prediabetes – who have started to experience elevations in blood glucose but have not yet developed diabetes – it was found that lifestyle changes significantly reduced the risk of developing diabetes. Newsome explained that just 150 minutes a week of activity to the equivalent of walking briskly, enough to get your heart rate up, can have significant benefits.

“You really have to hone-in on those lifestyle factors because you can’t change your genetics, but you can certainly change how active you are and your eating habits,” said Neumiller.

Newsome added, “If you do have people in your family with diabetes you may be at increased risk, but you can still take action to reduce your risk.”

While medications are recommended when a patient is diagnosed with diabetes, some people also change their lifestyle to help manage their diabetes, sometimes without medication.

Even though the American Diabetes Association and other organizations do not recommend any specific diet, they do recommend an emphasis on healthy foods; based on healthy staples such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruits while cutting out refined sugars and processed foods. However, both Newsome and Neumiller emphasized the importance of discussing any lifestyle changes with the health care team to make sure changes are being made safely.

“I never discourage people from any lifestyle or dietary changes that are interesting to them because if that motivates them to lose weight it’s going to help with their diabetes,” said Neumiller. “But I want that open communication, to talk about some of the potential pitfalls and other things we need to consider.”

One such potential pitfall is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Particularly if a patient is taking insulin or other medications that can lower blood sugar. If people with diabetes are taking these medications, changes in diet and/or the amount of physical activity they are engaging in daily can contribute to hypoglycemia. For these reasons watching blood sugars closely, especially when making lifestyle changes, can be extremely important for people living with diabetes.

Luckily, over time tools have developed to help make managing blood sugar easier for people living with diabetes. One such development is the continuous glucose monitor. The monitor is usually worn on the arm or abdomen, stays on for approximately two weeks, and checks glucose levels every few minutes. Individuals without continuous glucose monitors may need to poke their finger multiple times a day, going through a 3-5 minute process every time they want to check their blood sugar. With a continuous glucose monitor, however, blood sugar information is at the patient’s fingertips and visible through a device or phone app. Individuals can set alarms to go off at certain blood sugar thresholds and the devices have been proven to improve glucose management.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic this becomes even more important. Individuals living with diabetes who have less optimal blood sugar control have been seen to have much higher risk of negative outcomes from the virus.

“It’s very important that people really control their blood sugar well during the COVID-19 pandemic in case they do develop it so that they have the best outcomes possible,” said Neumiller.

Some hospitals have also begun to utilize continuous glucose monitors during the pandemic for patients with the virus. The monitors can be placed outside of the hospital room door to allow for glucose monitoring while limiting potential exposure to the virus.

HealthChats is an ongoing panel series by the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Videos of past events and live virtual panels can be found on the college YouTube. To learn more about our future HealthChats events please visit: