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Beauty battles the beast of diabetes

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Miss Missouri 2006 Sarah French spent her reign promoting healthy living to Missouri schoolchildren. A kickboxer and runner, she encourages kids to turn off the TV and get moving. 

Sarah French is still motivated by a story from her childhood: Her mother awoke with low blood sugar and drank orange juice to raise it. But she passed out. The glass broke and cut her so severely she was rushed to the emergency room and required a blood transfusion.

Today, French’s mother no longer needs insulin because she is able to control her diabetes with diet and exercise. But French hasn’t forgotten the episode. “It was scary,” says the avid runner and kickboxer. “It’s part of what motivates me to exercise and eat healthfully.”

A senior broadcast journalism major from Hot Springs, Ark., French used her position as Miss Missouri to promote her Health and Fitness for Life platform designed to educate Missouri’s youngsters about diabetes and the risks of obesity.

French has a personal vendetta against diabetes because her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all have type 2 diabetes. Once known as adult-onset diabetes, it is the most common form of the disease. In type 2 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin or ignores it. In addition, several of French’s cousins have type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, a condition in which the body does not produce insulin. “I definitely worry about developing diabetes because it runs rampant in my family,” she says.

Obesity triggers a health crisis

Type 2 diabetes afflicts about 21 million Americans, and an estimated 6 million of those are undiagnosed. Forty million more Americans are likely prediabetic. Public health officials and doctors predict that a nationwide epidemic looms as diabetes shows up in younger populations in growing numbers.

Studies estimate that as much as 45 percent of newly diagnosed diabetes in children is type 2. Nearly all have a family history of the disease, and 85 percent of these children are either overweight or obese.

Genetics play a role in developing diabetes, but being overweight, a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits are the primary triggers of type 2 diabetes.

The magic bullet?

Obesity seems so linked to diabetes that most people wouldn’t even question the connection. But, asks Tom Thomas, professor of nutritional sciences, is obesity itself really the problem?

He hypothesizes that being obese or overweight only increases the risk if you don’t exercise. “It’s a very novel idea,” he says. Thomas studies metabolic syndrome, which is closely tied to type 2 diabetes and characterized by risk factors including abdominal fat, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and insulin resistance.

In his current four-year study funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, 100 subjects will lose 10 percent of their body weight with diet and exercise. The subjects then will be divided into two groups: One will regain the weight while exercising while the other will regain without exercise. Thomas thinks that those who exercise will maintain the health gains they achieved when they initially lost the weight. In America, 80 percent of people who lose weight regain it. Exercise, Thomas says, is “almost a magic bullet because anything from gardening to running marathons has an effect on glucose uptake.”

Make your metabolism flexible

Another MU researcher also asks: Is it possible to be fat and fit? Maybe, says John Thyfault, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and internal medicine. “But, at some point, excess weight interferes with exercise,” he says. Thyfault researches metabolic flexibility, which is how well the body uses energy, metabolizes fat and disposes of glucose after a meal. The more flexible, the better.

“Obese people or type 2 diabetics display metabolic inflexibility,” Thyfault says. Environment compounds our genetic dispositions. Exercise is known to improve metabolic flexibility, while excess weight and physical inactivity lead to metabolic inflexibility.

He offers two simple ways to improve metabolic flexibility. “Try to do things yourself that you pay others to do, such as yard work or housekeeping, so you’re increasing the amount of movement in your life. Second, cut out visible fat in your diet like butter or the fat on meat. Small changes can make a big difference.”
       

Creating a healthy future

By encouraging children to adopt healthier eating habits and become more physically active, French hopes to help youngsters avoid the diabetes-related difficulties her family members have endured. Along with her speaking engagements, she joined Shape Up Missouri, a state program with sponsors including MU and MU Extension, in which teams compete for prizes by being active and losing weight. The program includes Shape Up Our Students, a nine-week initiative that teaches fitness and nutrition to K–12 students. French encourages students to turn off the TV and go outside and often leads them in aerobics or dance routines. She believes it’s easy to get hooked on exercise once you start because it relieves stress and produces endorphins.

“It makes you happy,” she says. “This isn’t about a diet or working out to lose a certain amount of weight. It’s about making healthy changes for life.”

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