What Asian Pacific Americans need to know about diabetes

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

Julie Cheng began ice skating at age 7.

After skating competitively for three years, she took a yearlong break from the sport at age 10. She wasn’t sidelined due to injury. She was out for health reasons.

During the winter of 2005, Cheng, now 14, began eating more and drinking more water — up to three 17-ounce bottles in an hour to hour-and-a-half period. She also began urinating a lot more, often making several trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Despite the calorie increase in her diet, Julie became more fatigued and lost between 10 and 20 pounds in a six-month period.

“I had no idea what was happening,” she said.

This chart was adapted from “Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report.” (Image by NWAW staff)

The eighth-grader from Kenmore Junior High School thought a few pills would cure her symptoms. But in June 2006, her parents took her to the doctor and they learned that Julie was showing the signs of diabetes.
On its website, the American Diabetes Association, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent and cure diabetes as well as improve the lives of people affected by the disease, states there are two types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2.

Type 1, which is what Julie has, was previously known as juvenile diabetes and is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. With Type 1, the pancreas does not produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert food into energy. As a result, though Cheng was eating more, she felt tired. Her body was telling her that she needed energy.

About 5 to 10 percent of diabetics have Type 1. Most have Type 2, which is usually diagnosed in adults and causes the pancreas to produce an inadequate amount of insulin or to ignore the insulin it does produce.

Some groups are at higher risk of developing Type 2 than others. Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and native Hawaiians are among those groups.

Elaine Akagi, 64, who has had Type 2 diabetes for approximately 40 years, said it is Asians in this country, not Asians in Asia, who are at increased risk.

“It has a lot to do with the diet,” she said.

Mark Johnson, program director for the ADA Seattle-Tacoma office, agrees, saying the typically high carbohydrate count in the Western diet is the difference.

Johnson said Asians are also at an increased risk of becoming metabolically obese. This means that even though they could be of normal weight, fat builds up around their organs. Metabolic obesity may also lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes can lead to complications such as kidney failure, heart disease, high blood pressure, eye and vision problems, numbness in the feet, and skin infections.

To stave off these complications, Cheng and Akagi make sure to take care of their bodies. They are both on insulin, exercise regularly (Julie is skating nowadays), and watch what they eat to maintain a healthy weight and blood sugar level. They also test their blood sugar several times a day.

Akagi said counting carbohydrates and figuring out the sugar content in Asian foods has been difficult because nutrition facts for many dishes and products are not available. For example, she didn’t know the amount of carbs in teriyaki chicken.

Because of this, Akagi began volunteering with the ADA about six months ago to try to connect the nonprofit with people who could help with such difficulties, like former CEO of Uwajimaya Tomio Moriguchi.

Akagi said Moriguchi, whose family owns the retail chain, has been working to compile nutrition facts for Asian dishes from all ethnicities.

Akagi has also had a hand in helping to organize the ADA’s upcoming Diabetes Expo in Seattle.

“It’s everything about diabetes under one roof,” Johnson said in regard to the expo.

He said there will be roughly 80 vendors representing everything from food products and local nonprofits to pharmaceutical companies and booths offering free screenings, including blood glucose, vision, and cholesterol.

One of the main goals of the expo is to spread awareness about diabetes and to educate people on the topic.
Education is very important, Johnson said, especially for children because they can make changes in their lives that can help prevent Type 2 diabetes, which develops through lifestyle choices (Type 1 is genetic).

“It’s a lot better to prevent [diabetes] than to try to intervene at a later date,” he said.

Julie agrees and said the more children know at a younger age, the better.

“What you do now affects you in the future,” she said. “And that’s very important to know.” ♦

The Diabetes Expo will be held on Saturday, May 1, at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, 800 Convention Place, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission to the event is free.

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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