Blinding Evidence

That beautiful, seductive plate of fried food – fish, chicken, potatoes, pork chops, even fruits and vegetables – can leave you stone blind.

That’s a stretch, a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s meant to make a point.

If you’re black, you’re much more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. Although the numbers vary depending on where you look, the risk is significant, perhaps as high as twice that of whites.

One eventual consequence of diabetes, if left untreated, is blindness, and African Americans are 50 percent more likely to lose their sight from the disease.

There are other horrible results of diabetes that affect black people much more often than others, including kidney disease and the amputation of part or all of lower limbs. But my focus here is on blindness and what can be done to lower your risk.

First, though, it must be said that diabetes advocacy organizations, the insurance industry, health care providers and medicine in general must do more tackle the shameful situation I just described. Efforts are being made in some quarters, but the numbers involving African Americans and diabetes don’t seem to budge much. More needs doing.

That’s the blame that can be cast elsewhere.

But much of the onus falls on us for our diet, lifestyle, and personal neglect. Food and obesity are more directly related to diabetes than almost any other disease or disorder.

When we follow the traditional black diet – whether we call it soul food, comfort food, country cooking or Afrocentric dining – we eat too many of the wrong things. Fat makes food delicious, but too much is hazardous. Greens are extremely beneficial, but that’s blunted by pot liquor bubbling with meat grease. Too many starches raise blood sugar and add unhealthy pounds. And sugar itself, in soft drinks and desserts and candied vegetables and so many other places in our diet is dangerous in ways too numerous to detail here.

We must get smart about what we eat, and there is no end of information available online about how to do that and not forgo flavor and satisfaction.

We must end any sedentary ways and exercise, not only to stop gaining weight but to shed the excess fat so many of us already carry.

One of the more insidious realities of diabetes-related blindness is that there may be no symptoms until the damage is well underway. When symptoms appear, they can include blurred vision, “black spots” before your eyes, glints of light and eye pain.

Any of these, especially if you know you’re diabetic, should be followed up immediately with an ophthalmologist. Those without insurance to cover such exams may find help through local medical schools.

Diabetics should have a thorough eye examination once a year, especially for retinopathy, the most serious of the eye disorders that can be caused by the disease and the leading cause of adult blindness.

To avoid the condition, it is most important to combine a diabetic diet with regular exercise and check your blood sugar levels regularly – there’s just no getting around this. The same goes for smoking and heavy drinking – both need to be stopped. If you need an extra incentive, think about living in darkness every time you light up or raise another glass.

Because high blood pressure and cholesterol can also contribute to failing vision, these too should be regularly monitored as part of a physical exam, and controlled by diet, lifestyle changes and sometimes medication.

Regular, affordable, quality healthcare is unavailable to far too many Americans, particularly African Americans, and solving that is beyond the ability of any individual.

But what we eat and how it affects our bodies is a choice. When you gaze at that seductive plate of unhealthy food, it’s worth remembering that eating it can up the odds that you won’t see it – or anything else – ever again.

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