US churches are telling congregants to eat correctly to avoid diabetes

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron

RALEIGH, North Carolina - The breakfast offerings atSt John's Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, haven't changed much over the years.

Aside from the yoghurt, there's scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, waffles and syrup on a table in the downstairs dining hall.

but if the church is going to offer its members abundant life in addition to an afterlife, it's going to have to change its menu.

Nearly 30 people in this church suffer from diabetes. A weekly helping of these foods might not only aggravate their symptoms - it might be deadly.

But church members now have a greater incentive to make changes.

St John's, along with a dozen other African-American churches in Durham, are participating in a pilot research project by Duke University aimed at improving the health of blacks suffering from diabetes.

The project, funded with an R11million grant from the National Institute of Health, is intended to reduce complications from diabetes.

Its plan is to establish social support groups within the churches, hold educational forums and teach participants how to get the most out of visits to their doctor.

Researchers think churches, among the most respected institutions in the African-American community, are the best equipped to make lasting changes in the lives of their members.

"Church members know a lot more about how to move a congregation than we do at the university," said Sherman James, an epidemiologist who heads the project at Duke.

Diabetes is one of the biggest killers in North Carolina and it hits African-Americans the hardest.

Across North Carolina, 547000 people have diabetes - about 8,5percent of the population, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services.

Among blacks, the rate is 13,3percent and it's climbing faster than in any other ethnic group.

Complications from diabetes include heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness and kidney disease.

With proper diet and exercise, however, diabetics can take steps to control the disease and lower the rate of complications.

Researchers in the Diabetes Improvement Project hope to spread that gospel among the 300 study participants they are recruiting in local churches.

At St John's, Barbara Parker, 56, volunteered for the study because she wants to "get as healthy as I can".

Loretta Powell, 46, volunteered because she wants to get off her medication.

Participants are required to join a support group at their church with other people suffering from type 2 diabetes, the most common form, which is usually diagnosed in adulthood. They must also attend meetings at which people tell of strategies that have worked for them. And they must keep in phone contact with a community health educator, who will monitor their progress.

Those taking part will have their blood-glucose levels tested three times over the next year.

The idea is to compare the results of the blood-glucose tests with those of 300 other African-Americans receiving routine care through Duke's health system but who are not participating in the study. Researchers hope to see marked improvements among those in the study.

Elaine Hart-Brothers, a doctor who is one of the study's researchers, said one aim of the research is to see if there is a link between economic status and improved health.

Hart-Brothers, who heads Durham's Community Health Coalition, a non-profit group committed to eliminating racial health disparities, said diabetes doesn't discriminate.

"I have patients who are state senators, professors and bank chief executives," she said.

"Then I have a whole bunch of indigent people who have the issues and challenges of the lower economic classes."

Churches know that they must do a better job of helping people deal with the diabetes epidemic.

At an Easter service last year a diabetic man collapsed at Peace Missionary Baptist Church in Durham and had to be taken to the hospital. It's now common for churches to deal with people feeling dizzy, weak and confused because of low levels of blood sugar.

Sherry Ferguson, a nurse who is a member of Peace Missionary Baptist, said the church bought a glucose monitor and now stocks orange juice and sweets to give to diabetics who might be experiencing hypoglycemia, which is not enough sugar in the blood.

Many congregations hold periodic health fairs. But pastors and church members also recognise that more structural changes are needed, such as revising menus for Wednesday night suppers and Sunday morning breakfasts.

These changes are as important for those who don't have diabetes as for those who do.

In the US 1,5million new cases of adult-onset diabetes were diagnosed in 2005.

Shufonda Parker, a member of St John's who is not diabetic, said her grandparents suffered from the disease, as do many of her friends and acquaintances. Parker, 39, a mother of two, said she's trying to cut down on sugary drinks and fast-food takeaways, but working full-time and taking classes at Durham Technical Community College makes it difficult.

"Instead of eating fast-food three or four times a week we're going to cut to once or twice a week," Parker said, but acknowledged, "We're not there yet." - New York Times