Recommended consumption of added sugar should not exceed 6 tea spoons for women, and 9 for men. Image Credit: GN Archives

It's easy to think we know all about diabetes, but it's far more complex - and common - than most of us realise. As the UAE's weight increases, the number of us developing type 2 diabetes is growing, too, and it's a worrying state of affairs.

In recent studies, it was discovered that the UAE has the second-highest prevalence of diabetes in the entire world. Only the native population of the Pacific island of Narau has a higher rate. Shockingly, it was discovered that roughly 20 per cent of the UAE population is currently living with the condition. Even more shocking was the revelation that 50 per cent of those may not even be aware that they have it. Because, like our expanding waistlines, the tell-tale signs such as blurred vision and increased tiredness tend to come on slowly, and tend to be things we put down to factors like ‘stress' or ‘ageing'. But, these symptoms could be a sign of something more serious, which can ultimately lead to failure of many organ systems and even render the patient comatose. It's a ticking time bomb in terms of our health, making it more important than ever for everyone to get clued up on how you can both detect and prevent the condition.

So, what exactly is type 2 diabetes? "Type 2 diabetes is caused when there is an excess of glucose in the bloodstream due to a medical condition called ‘insulin resistance', says Dr Hiba Waleed Hazim Kashmoola, a specialist at Zulekha Hospital. "Even though the body produces insulin, the hormone is either weak or is not recognised by the body and therefore cannot function to its true potential."

Dr Hiba explains that the disease usually has visible symptoms, including increased hunger and thirst, sudden weightloss and nausea, but warns that in some cases there are no visible symptoms, making it difficult to detect.

A question of a lifestyle

What is so depressing about this rise is that diabetes is mainly preventable. Only 5 per cent of cases fall into type 1 (an unavoidable auto-immune condition, where the pancreas is attacked by auto-antibodies). The remaining 95 per cent fall into type 2, which can usually be attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle and weight gain. "The exact cause of type 2 diabetes remains unknown, but it appears that lifestyle plays a big role," saysDr Sameem Majid Matto of the Canadian Specialist Hospital. This is the message that UAE groups, such as the Landmark Group and the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), want to get across with their awareness and prevention campaigns this November: to stop the rates rising any higher, we need to take a serious look at the things we eat, drink and do.

According to Dubai-based diabetes specialist Dr Thomas Zachariah, "Without some serious lifestyle changes, we expect the diabetes rates in Middle Eastern countries to jump to between40-50 per cent of the population in just 25 years."

These are some serious statistics, and they're prevalent in this region for a number of reasons. Dr Maha Taysir Barakat, a consultant at ICLDC says, "There seems to be a genetic predisposition to the disease among UAE nationals and statistics show that they have a higher prevalence than other nationalities in the UAE." She explains, "Tendencies towards an inactive lifestyle, weight gain, an imbalanced diet and/or a lack of exercise are also major contributors. Obesity is known to increase the risk of developing diabetes in adulthood - and, recent statistics show a worrying increase of type 2 diabetes in younger people, too."

This is important, as figures suggest12 per cent of children in the UAE are overweight (compared with 10 per cent worldwide) and 22 per cent are prone to obesity. Most people living with diabetes are aged between 40 and 59, but this is falling steadily in the region. So feeding your family a healthy diet and encouraging them to be active from an early age is as vital as safeguarding your own health.

As women, we are equally susceptible. In fact, diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death in women globally, causing2.1 million deaths per year. And once again, the Middle East is showing cause for concern, with the greatest increase in female diabetes over the next 20 years expected to be in this region - a huge96 per cent predicted rise.
Take action

The bottom line is that we are all at risk - regardless of age, gender, or nationality - but we can reduce the risk by adopting a healthy diet and becoming more active.

"The key to preventing diabetes, even in those with predisposing genes, is to maintain a normal body weight and to exercise regularly," says Dr Maha. "For example, taking up just 30 minutes of brisk walking daily will make a big difference. Take the stairs instead of the lift, walk or cycle to the shop instead of driving, park further away from the office and walk, or even put on your walking shoes for trips around the malls and use it as a workout!"

Diet also plays a big part in preventing the condition. The advice is to cut down on foods that are high in fat, calories, or sugar, which should help you to lose weight and maintain it. You should include plenty of fibre in your diet (at least 14 grams for every 1,000 calories that you eat) and always opt for wholegrains.

Consuming excess sugar is a worry especially as it's found in much of what we ingest, from the obvious (cake) to the less obvious (orange juice). Then there are the less-welcome ‘hidden sugars' - those sneakily (and increasingly) found in so much of the packaged and pre-prepared food we buy, often as a cheap way of adding taste and texture (sugar keeps baked food moist).

This is why it's important to become label-savvy, so you can be aware of those hidden sugars, says nutritionist and Revital expert Emma Alessandrini. "Sugars have many disguises and ingredients - sucrose, fructose, glucose and honey - can raise blood sugar levels in a similar way to plain white sugar. Surprisingly, foods such as canned soup, breads, canned vegetables, pasta sauces and natural snack bars can all contain high amounts of concentrated sugar. Regularly exceeding the recommended daily allowance of sugar (12 teaspoons or 50 grams) will put you at risk of developing diabetes - so always check the labels of packaged products."

In fact, there's hidden sugar virtually everywhere - a frappuccino can have five teaspoons of sugar in the syrup, while low-fat often means ‘high sugar' as manufacturers usually ‘up' the sugar levels when they take out the fat, meaning products like ‘healthy' cereal bars are actually packed with sugar.

And if you need any further encouragement to adopt a healthier lifestyle and protect yourself from this worrying and fast-growing health risk, the last word should be given to Claire Purnell, 39, a Dubai resident who lives with type 2 diabetes: "If you still have a chance to prevent diabetes, I would urge you to make changes to your lifestyle. Start exercising and eating healthier foods, because as nice as that cake may taste, having a healthy body feels so much nicer! "Diabetes affects my life every single day and I wish I could turn back the clock. If you still have time, you are one of the lucky ones."

Limit your risk
Simply making a few small lifestyle changes can really cut your diabetes risk. If you do lead an unhealthy lifestyle, it's worth getting a blood glucose test. There will be free tests available throughout November.

Eat healthily
Avoid food that is high in calories, fat, sugar, or carbohydrates. Low GI-carbs (like sweet potatoes) release glucose slowly and help to even out blood sugar levels so include lots of fibre, wholegrains, pulses and oats in your diet.

Get label savvy
Educate yourself on ‘hidden sugars' and look for them when shopping. Glucose, glucose syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, treacle and golden syrup are all sugars by a different name, so be aware.

Start exercising
Begin exercise gently with just a brisk walk every day, and increase the distance daily until you feel your fitness levels rising. Consider joining one of Dubai's many classes for extra motivation. Encourage your kids to join sports teams and exercise with them.

Give up smoking
Smokers are over 50 per cent more likely to develop diabetes than non-smokers. Make it your priority to quit for good.

Monitor your weight
Keep track of your weight to make sure you maintain a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index). Visit www.bmi-calculator.net/ to work it out.

Hidden sugars
To prevent type 2 diabetes, experts recommend cutting sugar from your diet wherever possible. You may be surprised by how many teaspoons of the sweet stuff are in food and drinks you actually thought were healthy.

The World Health Organisation recommends we eat no more than 12 teaspoons of sugar per day (1 teaspoon equals 1 sugar cube).

Diabetes month

Initiatives in the UAE over the next month will draw attention to diabetes and help to educate the people about prevention.

• ICLDC's ‘Diabetes-Knowledge-Action' campaign aims to move the population towards a healthier lifestyle. The campaign's Walk for Life takes place on November 25 from 3pm at the Yas Marina Circuit. Visit www.diabetesuae.ae for further details.
• The Landmark Group's ‘Beat Diabetes' campaign (in association with the International Diabetes Federation) will also be active throughout the month, with their annual walkathon (Friday November 18 at Oasis Centre Mall) and free blood glucose testing being offered at the mall on November 18 and 19. See Things To Do on page 12 for more information about this. Another campaign, Decide, will have activities throughout November. Visit www.decidecommunity.com.

Did you know? There are currently 300 million people living with diabetes worldwide, but it's estimated this number will hit438 million by 2030

Aquarius' health and wellbeing workshops Join Aquarius at Balance Cafe and Balance Well Being 360°, Oasis Mall, for yoga sessions, diabetic cooking workshops and free blood glucose testing. See page 34 for more information.