The danger of diabetes

Let’s celebrate Norwegian heritage with an eye on health

danger of diabetes

Photo: Daytona Strong
There’s more to Norwegian culture than dessert, despite how incredible Norwegian desserts are.

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States
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Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that the number of people with diabetes had risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million. Today, in the United States alone, nearly 30 million children and adults have diabetes, over 9% of the population—conservatively estimated. The disease is on the rise, especially in children and young adults, and some experts estimate that up to 12% of the population is afflicted, with many cases going undiagnosed.

In Norway, the numbers look somewhat better. The Norwegian Diabetes Association reported in 2014 that of the country’s 5 million inhabitants, an estimated 375,000 had diabetes, about 7.5% of the population. As in the United States, many cases go undiagnosed, and in both countries, the costs to their health care systems are staggering.

Out of the numbers above, up to 95% suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Unlike Type 1 diabetes, which is largely determined by hereditary factors, Type 2 diabetes can often be treated and controlled by diet and exercise. Nonetheless, the disease continues to be a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke, and lower limb amputation. In 2016, an estimated 1.6 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes worldwide. Another 2.2 million deaths were attributable to high blood glucose in 2012.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen the dangers of diabetes firsthand. For most of her life my grandmother suffered from Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes, and I grew up watching her trying to manage it. Early on, I learned what foods must be avoided: even carrots and peas contain natural sugar, and table sugar was simply off limits. While she was a professional cook and baked some of the best cookies in the world, she never ate any of them herself.

Later on, there were insulin injections for mormor, and eventually the disease took her life. Fortunately, even though the disease can be hereditary, I was spared this fate. But my first cousin was not so lucky. In middle age he lost his leg to complications of diabetes and ultimately his life at age 60.

When I turned 60, I took a long, hard look in the mirror. I saw someone in relatively good health, but there was no denying that I had packed on the pounds. I got a wakeup call at my yearly physical, when I was told that I was getting dangerously close to pre-diabetes. I had been spared type 1 diabetes; I didn’t want to go anywhere near type 2 diabetes.

I thought about how I’d gotten to that point, and realized that the company I was keeping wasn’t helping. Out and about in the Nordic community, I would often indulge in traditional foods full of sugar and carbohydrates. It was a little too much of a good thing: I had become a Nordic baked goods junkie. Something needed to change.

My changes began at home with more conscious meal planning. Now I am trying to extend them to my community by making small changes. A platter of fresh fruits, for example, can be just as tasty as a plethora of pastries and seem very Nordic too—colorful berries, apples, and pears are all found in the Norwegian kitchen.

The same goes for vegetable platters, which can be served with fish, pickled herring, cheeses, or cold cuts. Nuts are also excellent snacks for diabetics and those watching their diets, and are very healthy in general. Open-faced sandwiches on high quality wholegrain bread are also an excellent choice. There is no shortage of options, and you can have fun exploring the new selection of Nordic cookbooks that offer creative recipes for healthier fare.

Eating a piece of lefse spread with butter and sugar, a heart-shaped waffle, or a stack of pancakes smothered with whipping cream and jam doesn’t make a person more Norwegian. I am certainly not calling for a moratorium on baked goods, but moderation is the key. We should all think about celebrating and entertaining with a closer eye on nutrition and health.

Despite diabetes, Norwegians are still among some of the healthiest people in the world. In 2016, the average life expectancy was 82.51 years, as opposed to 78.69 years in the United States. It may be due to good genes, but lifestyle choices are without a doubt important. But in the modern world with a more affluent society, the Norwegian dietary recommendations are also changing to include fewer carbohydrates and a larger variety of foods to achieve a healthier balance. In the end, by taking these positive steps toward better health, you, too, can affirm the positive Nordic lifestyle we all love.

To learn more about diabetes, its risks and treatment, visit the website of the American Diabetes Association:

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.