Expo helps hundreds of diabetics beat the odds, create 'smart' plans

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Stephanie Johnson is just the kind of person organizers of the American Diabetes Association Expo are trying to reach.

"I'm here looking for information," the 57-year-old resident of the North Side said. "I'm pre-diabetic, and I wanted to refresh my memory on ways to stay on track and avoid becoming diabetic."

Ms. Johnson was one of about 3,000 people who attended the annual Downtown event Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Western Pennsylvania's expo is one of 13 large-scale health fairs organized by the diabetes association across the country.

What did Ms. Johnson learn at the expo? Some common sense tips, she said: "The importance of getting exercise, good diet and portion control."

The fair drew about 100 vendors representing health-care providers, pharmacies, custom-shoe makers and related businesses. The event also drew about 150 volunteers.

People attending the free expo could get their blood pressure, teeth and feet checked, pick up recipes for more nutritious meals and meet with a health coach.

The coaches counseled people on creating a "S.M.A.R.T" plan with goals that are "specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely."

"Coaches are advising people to pick just one or two goals and stick with them," said Julie Heverly, executive director of the ADA's Western Pennsylvania organization.

The region's population is older, more sedentary and heavier than the national average, and all three are risk factors for diabetes, endocrinologist Patricia Bononi said. Those conditions help to explain the higher incidence of diabetes here. Dr. Bononi is a medical director at the Allegheny Health Network's Joslin Diabetes Center affiliates. An endocrinologist is a doctor who specializes in diseases that affect the under- and overproduction of hormones.

People who have diabetes and family members, who are at greater risk for the disease, can learn about new technology, medicines and treatment at the health fair, Dr. Bononi said. "The more information they have, the better they can manage their disease," she said.

Registered dietitians from Giant Eagle were among the cooks demonstrating and providing samples of healthy-eating recipes. "Vegetables are where it's at," Samantha Montgomery told her audience. She described the steps as chef Jacqueline Little prepared a side dish of green beans with cranberries, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese.

The key to keeping the dish healthy is to use a lot of beans and small amounts of cheese and nuts, Ms. Montgomery said.

"Those green beans were fantastic," Peg Mineo said. The 68-year-old woman from Plum said she takes oral medication to treat her Type 2 diabetes but is not good about checking her sugar levels. "I'm here to get a better understanding of my disease," she said.

Cheryl Slipski, of Oakmont, was at the health fair looking for recipes that her husband, Norm, 63, would like. "He loves his bread," she said of her spouse, who has Type 2 diabetes.

The characteristics of Type 2 diabetes include high levels of blood sugar and insulin deficiency. Symptoms and side effects are made worse by diets high in starchy foods, including bread and potatoes, so Mrs. Slipski was looking for alternatives.

"I won't tell him that this recipe is healthy," she said of the green bean dish she learned to make on Saturday.

Max Szadek, appearing in the guise of "Mr. Divabetic," said he tries to entertain as he educates women on how to take care of themselves when they have diabetes.

His programs on Saturday adapted fairy tales to deal with various aspects of the disease.

Rapunzel, like many people with diabetes, felt isolated in her tower, " Mr. Divabetic said. "They should 'let their hair down' and invite their friends and family to form health care teams to assist them."

In another Mr. Divabetic program, pop singer Katy Perry's "T.G.I.F." was transformed from an anthem in praise of Fridays to a "Thank God It's Fiber" tribute to better eating.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184

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