Penn State Extension program recognizes National Diabetes Month

University Park, Pa. -- Even as the country debates health-care policy, there is little disagreement that diabetes is one of the most pressing health issues in the United States. About 24 million Americans have diabetes, resulting in 70,000 deaths annually.
In Pennsylvania, 764,000 adults, or 8 percent of the population, have been diagnosed with the disease, and it is the fifth leading cause of death. Individuals with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, blindness and lower extremity amputations.

To call attention to this growing problem, a presidential proclamation designated November as National Diabetes Month -- a good time, according to Penn State Cooperative Extension educators, to raise awareness of a program that has seen early success in helping those with Type 2 diabetes to manage the disease.

"Dining with Diabetes" is a five-part, 10-hour class now available in 32 counties across Pennsylvania. A registered dietitian or a certified diabetes educator joins an extension educator to offer food demonstrations and tasting, ideas for physical activity and important information to help manage diabetes. Classes also offer guidance for menu planning and healthy food preparation.

"The focus is really on becoming aware of healthy eating and physical activity, and of tracking certain indicators that people can use to take control of the illness if they already have it or to avoid it if they're at risk," said Jill Cox, extension associate and registered dietitian, who manages the program. "Knowing their blood pressure, A1C test results and cholesterol helps in lowering their chances of having a heart attack, stroke or other complications that can occur as a result of having diabetes. There's a lot they can do to lower risk and take control.

"One of the positive things about this program is that it focuses on the things that they can eat and activities that they can do to help in prevention as opposed to the more traditional focus on what you can't do any more, the food you can't have," Cox noted. "That's been a very helpful approach for participants -- to emphasize that life can still be good, even if you're watching the types and amounts of foods that you eat."

Follow-up testing indicates that participants in the "Dining with Diabetes" program significantly improved their level of disease awareness, confidence in self-management and general mood. They also achieved significant decreases in waist circumference, A1C values (which measure average blood sugar level over two- to three-month periods), and systolic blood pressure.

"That's been very encouraging to us," Cox said. "The drops in blood pressure may have more to do with the fact that participants are getting reconnected with their health providers as a result of the program. So they may be getting back to taking their blood pressure medication or having it prescribed for the first time.

"As a measure of fitness, reduced waist circumference can be tied to weight loss and greater toning as a result of increased physical activity, which is very important for blood sugar control. Weight loss is not a focus of the program, but because we focus on portion control and the types of food that people are encouraged to eat, that's been a nice byproduct."

Nationally, Pennsylvania has the third-highest percentage -- 20 percent -- of peo­ple aged 60 or older. Cox explained this makes the disease of special concern for the state.

"Although we're seeing diabetes more frequently now in younger people, traditionally it's been more prevalent in those 65 years old and above -- the senior population," she said. "We also see more complications from the disease as diabetics get older, so it's an especially big health care issue for Pennsylvania -- that population is one of the fastest-growing in our state."

State Department of Health rankings indicate that Philadelphia and Allegheny counties have the greatest risk of diabetes in the state. Cox said that's not surprising, since both regions have fairly urban populations with high numbers of African Americans, and risk factors for diabetes are closely tied to ethnicity.

"African Americans, those of Hawaiian-Pacific descent, Hispanic/Latino populations, Asian Americans and Native Americans are all at increased risk for developing diabetes," she said. "Also, urban populations are more challenged to have access to healthful foods and opportunities to exercise, which are both important factors in controlling the disease."

More information on the program and how to enroll is available through county offices of Penn State Cooperative Extension. Contact information for local offices is available online at A short online video describing the program can be found at /video/172331/2013/02/09/video-no-title.

The "Dining with Diabetes" program is made possible by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Health. Penn State also partnered with Joslin Diabetes Center, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Penn State Cooperative Extension is an educational network that gives people in Pennsylvania's 67 counties access to Penn State's resources and expertise. Extension provides educational programs to enable the commonwealth to maintain a competitive, environmentally sound food and fiber system, as well as to prepare youth, adults and families to participate more fully in community decisions.

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Last Updated November 16, 2009