The Diabetes Project

Posted by Eva Green on

A Chicago doctor is gaining national attention for prescribing food as medicine in an effort to reverse the dangerous trend of diabetes, one of the nation's biggest killers. 

Doctors say diabetes has reached epidemic proportions on Chicago's Southside where African Americans are at significantly higher risk. 1 in 5 residents has diabetes, compared to the overall city where 1 in 14 are affected.     

At Save-A-Lot stores on the Southside of the city, the supermarket serves as a classroom. The teachers are doctors and nutritionist and the students are all suffering from diabetes, or at-risk of the dangerous disease.

"I cannot tell you how important it is to get to know your vegetables, they are your friends they are your buddies," Dr. Adams says to a crowd of people in the vegetable section.  “If you are still frying your food, you are compromising your health."

One Englewood resident is learning for the first time in her life that the food she grew up on and loves can harm her health.

"I didn’t know that leaner was better and less sugar was better,” Janette Bowen, 60, says as she wheels her cart through the supermarket aisle. “I learned that now, especially when it has to do with my weight and my health"

In the war on diabetes, the insidious and in many cases preventable disease, elevates blood sugar, putting patients at higher risk for heart attacks, stoke, kidney failure, blindness and a long list of serious and potentially deadly complications.

1 in 5 South Side Residents Graphic.png  

Dr. Monica Peek, an internist and researcher at University of Chicago runs the South Side Diabetes Projects. Diabetes is an epidemic and taking over our country, she says.

“It’s being chased by the obesity epidemic so the heavier our country gets, the more increased risk we are seeing from the onset of type 2 diabetes,” Peek says. 

The South Side Diabetes Projects operate six clinics, two on the University of Chicago campus. The holistic approach to prevention and treatment addresses the medical, cultural and economic issues that have put South Side residents at higher risk.

At the center, patients start with an exam and an unusual prescription of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Dr Peek says there is something psychologically compelling about seeing it written on a prescription pad.

“You may not think of food and exercise the same way we do medications, so just making the mental shift to ‘this is as important at taking my medicine every day,” she says. 

Dr Office View.png According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 29 million Americans have diabetes but 1 in 4 don’t even know it because they haven’t been tested. More children are at risk for a number of reasons including sedentary lifestyles, super-sized portions and diets rich in fast and processed foods full of sugar, salt and fat. The problem is even more severe in economically challenged neighborhoods where fresh food and produce can be tough to find.

"For people who live in a food desert, they were more likely to be obese and more likely to have type 2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions,” Peek says.  “So we do have some evidence that it's not just how you live but where you live that can affect your health.”

Participants in the program are given coupons for cash-off at local Walgreens stores that carry produce as well as supermarkets and Farmer’s markets. They also get classes, supermarket tours, on-on-one support and advice that Dr. Peek is careful not to call a “diet.”

“What we’re really trying to say is that this is a lifestyle change, that everyone should eat like they have diabetes to avoid having diabetes,” Peek says. “Eat like a diabetic to avoid becoming one.”

South Side Yard Yoga.png Studies have shown that lifestyle changes are twice as effective as medication when it comes to preventing diabetes. Janette Bowen is a prime example of how much her personal habits can affect her health. Bowen’s father, four brothers, and son all had diabetes. When her health began failing too, she got a prescription from Dr. Peek that instructed her to eat lean meats and give up the pizza, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream.

“I’ve lost 25 pounds,” Bowen says.  “I had to make a life change because I was pre-diabetic and now I'm no longer pre-diabetic.”

Today, Bowen cooks her chicken in olive oil spray and has replaced French fries with vegetables. 

“I've enjoyed all of this good food now for 60 years,” she says. “It's time to enjoy what's best for me and my body.”

Doctors have been telling patients to eat better for years, but participants of Dr. Peek’s program say the success comes from close relationships with healthcare providers and the classes that generate community and empowerment.

“I'm afraid that I won’t be around to see my grandchildren grow up which I love my grandkids very much and they love their nana very much so that is my biggest motivation,” Bowen says.

The food as medicine prescription was the start of her cure, she says.