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What you should know about diabetes if you’re Hispanic or Latino

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Certain ethnic groups have higher-than-average odds of developing type 2 diabetes. But that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Here’s how to protect yourself if you're Hispanic or Latino. 

Kim Robinson

By Kim Robinson

The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on an unsettling truth in America: Your race or ethnicity can make a big difference in your health outcomes. People of Hispanic and Latino descent, for example, are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found.

The reasons for that are many. Certain racial and ethnic groups are more likely to live in multigenerational households and work in essential settings such as grocery stores and health care facilities.

But some are also more likely to have 1 or more underlying health conditions. And this ups the risk of having a severe or deadly case of COVID-19. These conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, asthma, heart disease and diabetes. (Are you managing a chronic condition? Download our app to find big discounts on the medications you need most.)

Type 2 diabetes is one underlying health condition where Hispanic and Latino Americans are especially at risk. This group has the second-highest rate (12.5%) of diabetes in the U.S., according to the CDC. They’re behind only American Indians/Alaska Natives (14.7%). And while the average American has a 40% chance of developing type 2 diabetes, that number is more than 50% for Hispanic and Latino American adults.

Still, that doesn’t mean you’re destined to get type 2 diabetes if you're from these groups, says Jane Delgado, PhD. She's the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.

“Unfortunately, the way that the information on diabetes and Hispanics has been portrayed gives the impression that diabetes for most Hispanics is inevitable,” Delgado says. “That kind of message discourages a person from taking steps to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes.”

While diabetes can’t be cured, it can be managed and prevented. But the first step is to understand the condition.

What puts Hispanic and Latino Americans at risk?

Diabetes isn’t caused by just one thing. Outside of diet and exercise, your risk is determined by factors such as genetics, age and weight. Some of the factors that raise your risk for type 2 diabetes include:

  • A family history of diabetes
  • Having prediabetes, which is a higher-than-normal blood sugar level, but not high enough to be considered diabetes
  • Having excess weight
  • Being 45 or older
  • Being physically active less than 3 times a week
  • Having gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby over 9 pounds

Many people with a Hispanic or Latino heritage are especially likely to carry some of those risks. For example:

  • Hispanic and Latino Americans are 1.2 times more likely to have obesity than non-Hispanic whites, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Hispanic women are 2 to 3 times more likely to have gestational diabetes, according to a 2018 study done by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the University of Chicago. And yet they are screened less often after childbirth for diabetes than non-white Hispanics.

There are also additional risks specific to Hispanic and Latino people. For example, 20% of Hispanic Americans lack health insurance, compared to 10% of non-Hispanic whites, according to the 2018 study mentioned above. And this puts diabetes prevention and treatment out of reach for many.

Researchers have also found that Hispanic and Latino Americans may carry genes that make them predisposed to insulin resistance. This means the cells in your body don’t respond well to the hormone insulin, which is necessary to pull glucose (aka sugar) out of your blood and into your cells. When this happens, the pancreas releases more insulin to compensate. If your pancreas can’t keep up, your blood sugar levels keep rising.

Not all Hispanic or Latino people have the same risk level. People with Mexican (14.4%) and Puerto Rican (12.4%) heritage have higher rates of type 2 diabetes than those of Central/South American (8.3%) or Cuban (6.5%) heritage, according to HHS.

How to prevent diabetes

A good place to start is just knowing your numbers. You can have prediabetes and type 2 diabetes without any symptoms at all. So the best way to know your risk is to know what your blood sugar levels are. Here are 7 sneaky signs of type 2 diabetes.

If you have risk factors for type 2 diabetes, check in with your doctor regularly. And ask to be given a blood test to screen for prediabetes. The CDC also has a 1-minute prediabetes risk test you can take.

Knowledge is power, right? But actions are important too. The CDC found that people in its National Diabetes Prevention Program could lower their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by as much as 58% through weight loss, healthy eating, exercise and stress management.

If you have excess weight, losing just 5% to 7% of your body weight can lower your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, according to the CDC. That’s about 10 to 14 pounds for a 200-pound person.

“To have a healthier life, it’s best to maintain the healthiest weight possible, move as much as possible, maintain healthy social relationships and know that sometimes you may need a professional to help move forward in these areas,” Delgado says.

To stay active, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends:

  • Sitting less during the day
  • Doing some light activity (standing, walking, simple stretches) every 30 minutes when you do have to sit
  • Moving your body and getting your heart pumping each day
  • Exercising 150 minutes per week (which works out to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week)

But that exercise doesn’t have to mean going to a gym or running on a treadmill. It can also include brisk walks, gardening, cleaning, dancing, bike riding and swimming.

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When it comes to eating to prevent diabetes, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. In fact, you don’t need to “diet” at all. The Diabetes Plate Method from the ADA is a great place to start. In general, the ADA suggests incorporating these basic principles into your overall eating pattern:

  • Emphasize non-starchy vegetables. Examples include spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, okra, peppers and zucchini.
  • Opt for lean protein choices when you can. Examples include chicken, eggs, fish and beans.
  • Choose wholesome carbohydrate foods such as polenta, brown rice and whole-grain tortillas.
  • Minimize added sugars from foods such as sodas and store-bought cakes and cookies.

When in doubt, know that you don’t have to do this alone. There are health experts dedicated to helping people with prediabetes and diabetes. Find a diabetes education program near you here.

How to stay healthy with diabetes

Over time, high blood sugar can be harmful to your health. It can damage your nerves and blood vessels. It also increases your odds of having other chronic conditions such as heart disease. That’s why it’s vital to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. Shop our store for the best prices on everyday essentials to manage your blood sugar.

Every day won’t be perfect. Other lesser-known factors such as stress can mess with blood sugar. But staying consistent with your management plan will set you up for the best chance of staying healthy over the long haul.

Some people are able to manage their blood sugar by staying active and eating balanced meals. Others may also need medications such as insulin, which can be expensive. But cost shouldn’t be a barrier to getting the lifesaving medicines you need. Download our app to save up to 80% on your prescriptions.

More good news: New tech can make it easier to manage diabetes than ever before. Read about your options here.

Besides managing your blood sugar, it’s important to stay up on how the rest of your body is doing, too. Talk to your health care team about what else you can do to stay healthy. The ADA recommends checking your feet daily. And letting your doctor know if you spot any sores, cuts or blisters. They also recommend having your eyes examined every year to check for damage or early signs of vision loss.

Whether you’re living with diabetes or are concerned about your risk, know that you can take charge of your health — and write your own destiny.

Affording diabetes medications can put a strain on any family. Download our prescription discount card and bring it with you to the pharmacy to see how much you can save.

Additional sources
Hispanic people are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Diabetes statistics report: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 2 diabetes overview: American Diabetes Association
Hispanic/Latino Americans and type 2 diabetes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
You can lower your odds of diabetes by 58%: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Hispanic and Latino Americans are 1.2 times more likely to have obesity: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Hispanic women are more likely to have gestational diabetes: Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews (2020). “Understanding the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the Hispanic population living in the United States”
Exercise for diabetes: Diabetes Care (2016). “Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association”
Eating for diabetes: Diabetes Care (2019). “Nutrition Therapy for Adults With Diabetes or Prediabetes: A Consensus Report”