Matt Perry, an employee of Express Mart #4, walks through the aisle to restock cans of soda. Photo by Scott Ball.
An employee of Express Mart #4 restocks canned sodas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio is facing an epidemic of enormous proportions: Type 2 diabetes. While nationally, 9% of Americans suffer from Type 2 diabetes, in Bexar County, 13% are afflicted. And the problem may be much greater than these data suggest. Dr. Thomas Schlenker, medical director at marketing and communications firm Interlex, said that up to 200,000 people may have the disease, many who don’t even know it.

On Wednesday, March 16, he will present “Pre-diabetes: Preventing the progression to Type 2 Diabetes” at the second annual Nutrition Summit hosted by the San Antonio Food Bank. This year’s focus is “In Defense of Food” and will feature a documentary of the same name. The free event in the Food Bank’s event center at 5200 W. Old Highway 90 starts at 8:30 a.m. and programming continues through 1:30 p.m. Contact Amanda Shelton 210-431-8342 or email to RSVP.

Many San Antonians are “pre-diabetic,” they have the risk factors, but have not yet crossed over. Dr. Schlenker believes we can turn the tide for them.

“It is in no way inevitable. It can be prevented,” said Schlenker, who is the former director of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

We know that genetics play a role: Hispanics and African-Americans are at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. Being overweight is a definite risk factor, but weight can also be misleading. There are many diabetics who are normal weight. Middle aged men who are fit, working multiple jobs requiring physical labor, they’re not overweight and they’re active. But they, too, develop diabetes, and they quickly lose their capacity to care for their family, according to Schlenker.

A healthy diet is key. Most of us know to avoid obvious high sugar foods like soda and juices. We know when we eat a cookie or a piece of cake we’re consuming sugar and we try to limit ourselves. The greater risk comes from other processed foods. Nearly every packaged food item has added sugar, and people aren’t aware of it. Look at the ingredient list on spaghetti sauce, crackers or peanut butter. Foods we don’t think of as “sweet” have added sugar.

“If we eat exclusively processed foods instead of grains or whole foods, we are consuming more sugar than we realize,” Dr. Schlenker said.

As the rate of Type 2 diabetes continues to rise in Bexar County, health care providers are looking at many ways to combat the problem. The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio’s CHEF program is focusing on teaching families how to prepare fresh meals without processed foods. H-E-B’s Prescriptions for Produce program is helping pregnant women with gestational diabetes learn to control it through healthier eating.

At the Witte Museum, the H-E-B Body Adventure exhibit includes a kitchen with demonstrations. At the same time, the Bexar Healthy Beverage Coalition’s campaign “Sugar-Packed,” designed by Interlex, has focused on choosing healthy drinks like water over soda. In the last three quarters, preliminary data show that the percentage of children who have one or more sodas per day has progressively dropped form 54% to 50% to 36%.

“These educational campaigns are beginning to make an impact,” Dr. Schlenker said.

In addition to his presentation, the San Antonio Food Bank’s Nutrition Summit will include a discussion of physical and dietary guidelines and a focus on plant based recipes. The event will include several stakeholders such as health care workers, social workers, public health professionals, registered dieticians, and physical activity specialists. The goal will be to find new ways to tackle this problem from many different angles. The many pre-diabetics in Bexar County aren’t doomed to develop diabetes, but it will take effort and commitment from many different groups to turn around this tide.

Top image: Matt Perry, an employee of Express Mart #4, walks through the aisle to restock cans of soda.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Cherise Rohr-Allegrini

Cherise Rohr-Allegrini is an infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant. She is currently the San Antonio Program Director for The Immunization Partnership. Dr. Rohr-Allegrini was the Pandemic Flu...