Two people cook together in a kitchen.
Learn from your parents and teach your children how to live a healthy lifestyle and age well. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s possible that a simple conversation between parents and their children is all it would take to stop the cycle of some diseases.

If parents would discuss their own health problems with their kids, things like heart disease and diabetes might occur much less often.

Diabetes, heart disease and even breast cancer are preventable by following a healthy lifestyle. A well-timed conversation—before another generation suffers—could make all the difference.

When people say, “Everyone in my family has diabetes” or “Everyone has heart disease,” the underlying reason is usually a sensitivity to sugar.

What does this mean? Some families have a predisposition to belly fat weight gain and get diabetes earlier in life. Anyone can get diabetes if they eat enough sugar and gain enough weight, but some people get diabetes at lower weights.

Examples of this include the Freshman 15, gaining 30 pounds after having a baby, or the 15 pounds many women gain at menopause. More belly fat means more sugar cravings for foods like white bread, white potatoes, white rice and sweets.

Once ingested, the sugar then goes straight from the stomach to the belly fat. It’s a vicious and very unhealthy cycle.

Unfortunately, high blood sugars typically mean high cholesterol as well, especially if your diet is also high in fats like butter, lard, bacon and red meat. Sugar and fat together are a bad combination because high blood sugars make blood vessel walls sticky, the fat sticks to the walls, and plaque or blockages are formed. When enough blockages form in blood vessels, enough blood cannot get through to your vital organs (heart and brain), which would lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Tackle your risk factors

I have discussed the topic of risk factors in previous blogs, and I believe the topic is important enough to mention again here. We all have risk factors we can’t change—family history, age and timing of menopause. But there are risk factors we can change (exercise, sleep habits, and food choices), and it’s not as difficult as you may think.

The first step is to make a goal toward better health.

To create your goal, look at how well your mom, dad, or grandparents aged.

Hopefully, they were able to be a good example of how to lead a healthy life. Sadly, many women have not grown up in households with parents who were positive examples of how to eat right and exercise.

Many parents never talked to their kids about eating a healthy diet or maintaining an active lifestyle in order to avoid diabetes or heart disease. If you were lucky enough to have a mom or dad who talked with you about the importance of being healthy, use that positive example to create your own goals.

If not, create a clear picture of yourself and how you want your own life to be, and use that picture to set some goals for your future. How do you want to look and feel in three months, one year, or when you are 50 years old?

A patient I’ll call Leonica is an example of someone who grew up with several family members who suffered from a variety of health problems.

They had heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer, but they never talked about their health issues. The memories continued to haunt her, and she decided she did not want to suffer in the same way. Leonica respected that her family was strong and independent, however, she wished her family could have talked about their health problems to help her and others from her generation lead better lives.

For example, Leonica had no idea about the connection between craving sugar and eating simple carbs. She didn’t realize that eating things like white bread, white rice and potatoes would make her feel tired.

Things to know (and remember)

By educating herself, Leonica learned how eating more complex carbs like sweet potatoes and brown rice, and having a protein and vegetable for dinner would help her lose weight—without giving up her favorite foods. She continued making diet changes to reverse early diabetes and became more active in her everyday life.

As a result of her changes, Leonica became an example for her children, nieces and nephews. She also became the voice to get others talking about how to change their lives for the better. By passing on this knowledge to her extended family, Leonica hopes to stop the cycle of the diseases that have plagued her family for years.

Here are a few key points to remember:

  • See your doctor—If your family members have heart disease, diabetes or obesity, it doesn’t mean you will have the same fate. However, you are more likely to suffer from these issues, so see your doctor, get tested early for diabetes, and learn how you can avoid the same health problems.
  • Talk with your family about their health—Ask your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings about their health. Learn from them what you should and shouldn’t do to be healthy. Women who cope best ask for help and get educated so they can develop a goal and a plan. It’s OK to talk about bad moods, depression and anxiety; sharing can help others and take away the fear associated with these issues.
  • Know your numbers—Find out your waist size, blood sugar (A1C) level, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It can be scary to know you have pre-diabetes, but knowing gives you power and can be motivating to get a plan in place—before it’s too late.
  • Know how close you are to menopause—Being healthy gets harder after menopause, so you want to know how close you are to being there. As estrogen hormone levels fall, the body craves sugar and stores it in belly fat. And belly fat raises insulin and insulin factors, which increase the risk of breast cancer. Everything is tied together.
  • Cut back on the simple carbs—These are the same as sugar, and, if you want to avoid diabetes and heart disease, you need to have only one simple carb serving per day. Examples of simple carb foods include white bread, white potatoes, white rice, white flour tortillas, sweet treats and alcohol. Remember—only one per day.
  • Eat a good breakfast—Include a complex carbohydrate (whole wheat bread, cooked oatmeal, whole wheat bagel), a protein (eggs, low-fat cheese, turkey bacon), and a healthy fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts). Eating a healthy breakfast will keep your blood sugars stable and curb your cravings all day long.