Food for Thought: Diabetes and Religious Life

Alan Thomas Features

This is the second article in a series from the Province’s Wellness Committee. See related article in this issue for information about a survey of friars being planned by the committee.

In 1998, during an annual physical exam, my good doctor said it was time for me to “get my diabetes under control.” This came as a great shock, since he had never mentioned my having a “sugar” problem before.

My doctor recommended that I attend three talks given at the local hospital on general health issues, nutrition and exercise. After attending the first two lectures I skipped the third one. Right away, I set up a mental program of how I was going to deal with my diabetes that didn’t include a lot of exercise.

Today after eight years of trial and error, I can say that my diabetes is under control. Through medications, diet and light exercise, I am able to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.

The reason I am sharing this story is because in religious life today diabetes is second only to heart problems, (strokes, heart attacks, etc), as the largest disabler of friars. Today, one in nine people or 20.8 million in the United States suffer from diabetes, and by 2015, 250 million people around the world will have diabetes. In fact, some medical institutions are now recognizing diabetes as a separate medical specialty.

Considering the prevalence of diabetes nationally, globally, and within our own community, it is certainly time to address this problem which affects so many of our friars.

When I visit friaries around the province, it is quite evident that the age of our community has increased. Most of our houses provide great meals with plenty of “sweets” for the good friars to enjoy. And enjoy them we do! It is not only the sweets that are always available, but also other carbohydrates (which turn to sugar when digested), such as breads, rolls, pasta and rice.

Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are not the “enemy” in diabetes control, but it is important to exercise portion control, which may be difficult to accomplish with all those wonderful foods so often literally at our fingertips.

The majority of friars with diabetes with whom I have spoken have Type 2 diabetes, and indeed, it is the most common form of diabetes in the general population. Type 2 diabetes occurs because either the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (insulin deficiency) or the body is not able to use the insulin efficiently (insulin resistance). Insulin is necessary in order to move glucose (sugar) from the blood stream to the cells, where it is utilized by the body.

Type 1diabetes is much less common in the general public as well as religious life, and occurs when the body simply does not produce any insulin. All people with Type 1 diabetes need to take insulin.

Type 2 diabetes is controlled initially by meal planning, weight control, and doing some form of moderate exercise on a regular basis. It is very important to monitor one’s blood sugar regularly to make sure the treatment is effective; the aim is to keep the blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible in order to prevent the complications of diabetes. In some people with Type 2 diabetes, it may be necessary to use oral medications or, in some cases, insulin to obtain control.

The complications of diabetes are serious and can be fatal. They include heart and circulatory problems, nerve damage, kidney failure, foot ulcers and even blindness. The problem is that some of these complications can be occurring without symptoms. It is therefore very important for anyone with diabetes to be under the regular care of a physician who is well versed in this condition, even if you are “feeling fine.”

It would be wonderful if each chef in every house of the province would work out individual meal plans with each friar, but that is impossible. Certainly, a friar with any kind of special dietary needs should alert the cook.

However, if you are a friar with diabetes, it is ultimately your responsibility to take care of your health by following a meal plan as prescribed by your doctor or diabetes educator, doing some form of daily exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and regularly monitoring blood sugar. If you have trouble controlling your diabetes, ask your doctor to refer you to a diabetes education program, where experts will help you develop an individual program that works for you. If you are not diabetic but can’t remember the last time you were checked for this condition, see your physician soon. 6.2 million Americans are walking around with diabetes and don’t know it! It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves in order that our life and ministry become more alive in today’s world.


American Diabetes Association Web site

H. Leighton Steward, Morrison C. Bethea, MD, Sam S. Andrews, MD, Luis A. Balart, MD, “Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar To Trim Fat” Ballentine Books, New York. 1998.