Nearly four of every 10 people in parts of Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods have Type 2 diabetes, risking serious and even life-threatening health problems as they age.

Rates of diabetes range from 17 percent to 37 percent in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods where for decades, high crime and poverty, inadequate health-care outreach, lack of safe exercise spaces, and few affordable or easy-to-reach fresh and healthy foods restrict people’s choices. (See map below)

Dr. Brian Layden, division chief of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism and an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), says people at risk should have their blood sugar checked in their 30s or 40s — and that the consequences of ignoring the issue are truly life threatening.

“Despite diabetes being a disease you don’t notice, it does shorten your life if you don’t take care of it,” Layden said. The most serious complications include blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure and limb amputation.

Two Chicagoans who knew they were at risk of such dire consequences took action – proving that you can stop the downward spiral toward diabetes if you recognize it before it’s too late.

Jaime Diaz, pictured in the exercise room where he attended weekly sessions when he began the Elm program at Rush University Medical Center’s Triangle Office Building, on Thursday, March 24, 2017. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

Nearly three years ago, Jaime Diaz got a wakeup call from his doctor: His weight, which topped out at 332, along with high blood sugar and fat levels, showed that he was pre-diabetic and had metabolic syndrome, putting him at risk of a stroke, heart attack and full-blown diabetes.

Dr. Rasa Kazlauskaite at Rush University Medical Center, where Diaz, 36, works as an Information Systems engineer, put it to him straight: If Diaz wanted to celebrate his then-three month old daughter’s Quinceanera party or walk her down the aisle at her wedding, he’d have to quickly reverse his health crisis.

“I was shocked,” said Diaz, who has since lost 100 pounds, exercises for an hour each weekday at lunchtime, gave up soda, beer and a high-carbohydrate diet — and no longer has any characteristics of pre-diabetes. People with pre-diabetes have blood glucose levels higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes.

Diaz advises anyone who is overweight, who has a family history of diabetes or who simply believes he or she is at risk to get a baseline screening as soon as possible, and to prepare for a long but ultimately fulfilling journey.

Jaime Diaz reviews his records with Dr. Rasa Kazlauskaite at Rush University Medical Center’s Triangle Office Building on Thursday, March 24, 2017. Diaz has lost 102 pounds since he enrolled in the ELM Program for pre-diabetes in the summer of 2013 and has since reversed his condition. | Michelle Kanaar/For the Sun-Times

“The first four to six weeks were the toughest,” he said, noting that he isolated himself from friends with poor eating habits until he figured out how to replace carbs with healthy foods.

“I started walking around with packs of nuts, yogurt and lettuce leaves,” he said. “If I was invited to a cookout, I’d bring lettuce leaves in place of tortillas, and have my answers ready when somebody said, ‘What are you doing? You’re being a little girl.’”

“I had friends who tried to talk smack to me,” Diaz said. “After a while, they started respecting my choices and let me be.”

Diaz also joined Rush’s ELM (Eat well, Love better, Move more) program, a six-month program where a group of patients meets once or twice a week to make healthy habits part of their daily routine. The idea is that healthy living is not about deprivation; it’s about enjoying life.

One of Diaz’s habits — his workouts — started when he joined the Rush Fitness Center in the summer of 2014. Since Diaz started the program, he has lowered his blood sugar level to 75 from 101 grams per liter. A blood sugar level less than 100 grams per liter is normal; from 100 to 125 is considered pre-diabetic and 126 or higher on two separate tests indicates diabetes. He also lowered his level of triglycerides to 80 from 220.

He said he now appreciates every moment of his new routines, including going out Latin-dancing with his wife, Joanna, and running, jumping and playing with children Alyssa, 6, and Emma, 3.

Trainer Maurice Durr and Lynda Powe pose for a photo during Powe’s workout session Thursday, March 23, 2017, in Forest Park, Illinois. | Tim Boyle/For Sun-Times Media

Lynda Powe, a 70-year-old retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, followed her doctor’s advice, too, by starting a workout program with personal trainer Maurice Durr, who operates First2Train in southwest suburban Forest Park.

“(Durr) is very clear about not only what [exercises] we do, but why we do it,” Powe said.
Powe credits Durr with being a calm and patient force on her seven-year journey. She has lost 125 pounds, ditched her soda-pop habit, took control over food portion sizes and completed her first 5K run.

Powe, who had had pre-diabetes during her third pregnancy in 1983 at age 36, said she turned to her doctor, Dr. Crystal Peoples, when she felt frustrated that she kept gaining weight despite going to a gym, and wanted to avoid veering into diabetic territory again.

“I knew I was heading in the wrong direction, and that, if I didn’t get myself together, there would be no ‘pre’ (diabetes) about it,” said Powe, who spent most of her 36 years teaching at CPS schools on the city’s West Side. “I needed to take care of myself so I wouldn’t have to worry about (getting diabetes) in the future.”

Lynda Powe works with trainer Maurice Durr during a workout session Thursday, March 23, 2017, in Forest Park, Illinois. | Tim Boyle/For Sun-Times Media

Powe has lowered her blood sugar level to an average of 73 from her previous level over 125, and reduced her triglycerides to 35 from her original level over 150.

Dr. Kazlauskaite said diabetes prevention is particularly difficult to deal with because so many people believe Type 2 diabetes is a poor person’s disease that results from a character flaw—just as people once thought of depression. Yet Kazlauskaite said that in her native Lithuania, diabetes is a disease of the rich: Those with access to soda pop and highly processed food available only to the affluent get diabetes.

The real culprit is far more complex in the United States, with Type 2 diabetes affecting Latinos and African-Americans moreso than whites, and reflecting not only a disorder of the pancreas, but also how a person’s liver handles food nutrients from the digestive tract. Other risk factors include obesity, age, high blood pressure and a family history of diabetes, doctors say.

“The best treatment is to prevent [diabetes] in the first place with lifestyle changes,” said Kazlauskaite, who works in Rush’s preventive medicine department.

Courtesy Illinois Department of Public Health

Medical startups and community groups are leading an effort to bring diabetes prevention programs to Chicago, including a pilot program sponsored by Northwestern University in partnership with Saint Anthony Hospital, Alivio Medical Center and Latino community healthy lifestyle centers Enlace Chicago and Universidad Popular.

Their efforts are filling a void left by the YMCA of Metro Chicago, which is taking a wait-and-see position before it implements a diabetes prevention program. By contrast, the YMCAs in Berwyn, Cicero, Oak Park and Joliet are spearheading such programs.

The YMCA of Metro Chicago is watching how the diabetes prevention programs work in area suburbs and what happens to federal and state funding before it commits to implementing the program, a spokeswoman says.

How do people reverse pre-diabetes? Here’s advice from two people who did it:

— Don’t expect quick results. And don’t beat yourself up when you hit a rough patch. Lynda Powe, who lost 125 pounds over seven years, said she and her exercise group regained the weight they had lost during a recent spring break. Their trainer, Maurice Durr, maintained his calm, positive demeanor while he acknowledged their work would eventually pay off, Powe said.

Put movement, nutrition and recovery at the center of your new lifestyle. This isn’t about dieting and exercise. It’s about how you live.

Find a support system, including a doctor you trust, an exercise or lifestyle coach, and/or a motivational group.

Start reading food labels and measuring the amounts of starch, sugar, calories and other ingredients you’re consuming. Replace high-carb foods such as pasta, bread and tortillas with high-fiber lentils and vegetables, and substitute fish, chicken and black beans for red meat. Lose the soda pop and, as much as possible, beer and alcohol. Jaime Diaz, who lost 100 pounds and reversed his pre-diabetes over three years, says he started making cauliflower rice by chopping up cauliflower heads and frying them in salt, seasoning and olive oil. He also started making flaxseed pancakes and almond flower pancakes. When Diaz spent about six weeks on a fasting diet, he was allowed 700 calories every other day, based on his weight and body type. He chose to drink seven 100-calorie protein shakes throughout the day on those days.

Drink lots of water. Make it more palatable by adding lime, cucumbers, strawberries or sparkling water.