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Understanding diabetes

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In South Africa, around 8.4% of people (1 in 12 adults) have diabetes. It is further estimated that around 62.5% of people with diabetes in Africa are undiagnosed. With the increasing prevalence of diabetes in South Africa, the need for knowledge on how to manage the condition has become ever-important.

What is diabetes?

The carbohydrates we eat get broken down into glucose, a type of sugar.  This glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, and becomes known as blood sugar or blood glucose.  The release of the hormone insulin from your pancreas allows the glucose to pass from your blood stream into your cells to produce energy for the body.  In this way, the insulin helps to regulate your blood glucose levels and facilitates your body’s ability to use the energy from carbohydrates. 

In people with diabetes, the body produces too little or no insulin or the body is not able to use its insulin properly.  This means that the process of allowing glucose to pass from your bloodstream to your cells for energy is hindered.  As a result, glucose accumulates in the blood, causing blood glucose levels to rise.  Over time, high blood glucose levels can cause damage to kidneys, eyes, nerves and the heart. 

The good news is that with the right treatment plan, diabetes can be managed, allowing you to live a long, healthy, active life.  The first step is to develop a treatment plan with your lifestyle in mind.  Consulting with a team of healthcare providers, such as a doctor, diabetes educator and dietitian will help you to master the four key areas for managing your health and diabetes: Exercise, Healthy Eating, Medication and Monitoring.

There are several types of diabetes:

Type 1 Diabetes: accounting for 5–10% of diabetes cases, this is an autoimmune condition in which the body turns on itself and destroys the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. A combination of daily insulin and a careful eating plan is required for its management. 

Type 2 Diabetes: accounting for 90-95% of cases, this is a complex and progressive disorder where a relative lack of insulin occurs together with resistance to insulin action.  Occurring most often in people who are overweight, the first step to managing this type of diabetes is lifestyle change, through exercising, healthy eating and promotion of weight loss.  As the condition progresses, oral tablets and insulin injections may be required over time.

Gestational diabetes (GDM) is a form of diabetes first diagnosed during pregnancy.  It develops in one in 14 pregnancies worldwide. GDM usually disappears after pregnancy, but women with GDM and their children are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Have you been tested?

Early detection of diabetes is important as the longer your body is exposed to high blood glucose levels, the more damage it could do.  Some people with type 2 diabetes have no outward signs associated with high blood glucose levels, so testing your blood glucose level is the only way to be sure.  To screen for diabetes, a finger-prick blood test is used. 

Did you know that Pick n Pay pharmacies offer free health and diabetes screening during the month of November?  To find your nearest PnP Pharmacy, follow this link:


For further information, please contact the Pick n Pay Health Hotline registered dietitian on 0800 11 22 88 or healthhotline@pnp.co.za or visit www.nutritionweek.co.za.  To find a registered dietitian in your area, visit the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) website at www.adsa.org.za.

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