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Diabetes and the Holidays

November 26, 2012

My grandfather used to say, “The Neelys will never have anything.  They’ll eat it all up.”  My grandfather was a wise man.

During the holiday season of 1987, I did not feel well.  Clare and I had the usual heavy schedule of Christmas parties and holiday dinners. On January 1, 1988, at my parents’ home, we enjoyed our traditional New Year’s Day meal. I ate my share and more.

While watching college football bowl games later that afternoon, I drank water constantly.  My brother-in-law, a family practice physician, noticed and said, “I want you to be at my office first thing in the morning.  Come fasting.  Don’t eat anything.”

The next morning I went to his office, fasting as he had instructed.  A glucose tolerance test revealed a painful truth.  During the long holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, my eating had made me sick. I was and continue to be a diabetic, one of nearly 19 million in the United States.

The American Diabetes Association reports that 8.3% of the population of the United States has diabetes. Seven million Americans are undiagnosed. Prediabetes affects another 79 million who are considered at risk for the disease. Diabetes makes heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other serious health problems more likely.

Diabetics include a surprising number of well-known personalities, either living or dead.  The list of diabetic Americans is impressive.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was diagnosed with diabetes in 2003. Huckabee ran for president in 2008 and is now a TV show host on the Fox News Channel.

Former talk show host Larry King says of his diabetes. “It’s definitely controllable,” King has said on his show.

Comedians Jack Benny, Drew Carey, Jackie Gleason, Tracy Morgan, Dan Rowan, and Jerry Lewis are on the list.

Musicians who have been diagnosed with the disease include Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, Patti LaBelle, B. B. King, Della Reese, Dale Evans, and Carol Channing.

Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” and Randy Jackson of “American Idol” are on the list.

Diabetic actors and actresses include Wilford Brimley, Delta Burke, James Cagney, Nell Carter, Carroll O’Connor, Spencer Tracy, Ben Vereen, Mae West, Jane Wyman, Halle Berry, and Salma Hayek.

Mary Tyler Moore Has been a diabetic for more than forty years and is a strong advocate for diabetes research.

Paula Deen announced in January 2012 that she has diabetes. Well known for her buttery, sugary recipes, the celebrity chef says, she wants “to let the world know that diabetes is not a death sentence.”

Last week I watched the Chicago Bears win a close football game on a rainy night in the Windy City. Quarterback Jay Cutler was diagnosed with diabetes in 2008 after he lost 35 pounds and felt like he had no energy. Cutler hasn’t let diabetes sideline him. He wears an insulin pump, monitors his blood sugar, and has called his condition manageable.

The Great Commandment, found in both Hebrew and Christian scripture, has helped me learn to cope with diabetes:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”   To love God in these four ways is to love God emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.  The diabetic must develop disciplines in each of these four areas.

Physically, a diabetic learns to pay attention to his or her own body.  Eating, sleeping, and exercise need to become functions of bodily awareness.

Mentally, a diabetic needs to become a student of the metabolic process.  Understanding the way carbohydrates become sugar and the way insulin is transported to the cells provides the conceptual key to making sense of our medications.  The careful diabetic is committed to an ongoing process of measuring weight, glucose levels, and food amounts.

Emotionally, diabetics and those who love them learn to expect marked mood swings.  Sadly, the pun that diabetics are just too sweet is not reality.  Diabetics are prone either to deny the seriousness of their disease or to allow the disease to become the defining factor in their lives.  A diabetic is responsible for managing this disease effectively without becoming a nuisance to others or indulging in self-pity.

When first diagnosed with diabetes, I had difficulty seeing others enjoy desserts when I could not.  In my life, as in many cafeteria lines, the desserts came first.  I had all of my desserts in the first forty-three years of life.  Adjusting to my illness required physical, mental, and emotional changes, all major lifestyle adjustments.

During the holiday season, I want to focus on a spiritual discipline that will help all of us, especially those who struggle with diabetes.  This way of coping enhances not only our health but also the deeper significance of the holidays intended, not for over-consumption, but for gratitude and generosity.  The discipline of fasting has been helpful to me.

“Wait a minute!” you may protest.  “You don’t look like you’ve done much fasting.” That is correct.

“I thought diabetics were not supposed to skip meals.” That, too, is absolutely true.  Diabetics should eat on a regular schedule.  Stay with me.

Fasting has not been one of the spiritual disciplines in the life of faith for most of us.  Christian tradition recognizes the deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, and sloth.  Many of us seem, however, to encourage the seventh deadly sin, gluttony.

Churches are among the worst offenders in a calorie-and-caffeine culture.  Church suppers and fellowships reflect conformity to our overeating society.  The management of diabetes requires abstinence from refined sugar, white flour, and other empty carbohydrates found in processed foods.  Many diabetics call these fake foods.

The discipline of fasting does not necessarily mean going without food. It can simply mean omitting certain items from our diet.  The consumption of foods as close to their natural state as possible is the wisest policy, not only for diabetics but also for everyone.  Fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and other natural foods are best.

Among many world religions, fasting is often connected with prayer. For example, prayers that focus on world hunger take on a greater sense of urgency when coupled with the discipline of skipping a meal.

On January 1, 1988, my physician brother-in-law asked me to come to his office.  “Come fasting,” he said.  Neither of us could have known that his request was a lifetime invitation.

As we enter this holiday season, I invite you to fast, not from all foods but from junk foods.  I invite you to abstain, not from delicious nutritious food but from sugar-laden fare that will damage your health.  This kind of fast serves to strengthen our bodies, renew our minds, and calm our emotions.  Coupled with prayer, the decision to feast and fast in moderation will nourish our spirits.

As we sit down to our sumptuous meals, we may allow our gratitude to extend far beyond our holiday table.  Our sense of appreciation should focus on relationships rather than on recipes.   As we enjoy our food, eating only what we need, we can resolve to find ways to help those who are hungry and malnourished. The blessings bestowed upon us afford the opportunity to become a blessing to others.


Kirk H. Neely
© November 2012





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