During the holiday season, while one carves the turkey and fills up on ham and egg nog, it is easy to forget the role that ones diet plays in their susceptibility to diabetes, one of the fasting growing health pandemics, particularly among African-Americans, in the country.

There are few causes that are being cited for the influx of new cases of diabetes. They include the lack of proper nutrition and exercise, compounded in some communities with the lack of adequate grocery choices, as opposed to the proliferation of fast food restaurants. Some experts point to cultural traditions of eating large amounts of fried and fatty foods.

According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 21 million children and adults have diabetes. Almost twice as many people are pre-diabetic, meaning their blood sugar is high and could reach the diabetic level if they don’t change their eating and exercise habits.

In the Chicago area alone, the Department of Public Health estimates that more than 800,000 people are affected by diabetes, and that the chronic disease is the fifth leading cause of death of Chicagoans. The department also recently encouraged residents to make better food choices during the approaching holidays.

Even considering these stats, help isn’t always readily available for many people who develop diabetes because of lack of health insurance, which means that many people might not know that they are diabetic or even in pre-diabetic stages.

Access Community Health Network, the largest network of community health centers in the nation, has sought to have an impact on improving these statistics by establishing its new Diabetes Care and Self-Management program, supported in part by Humana, Inc.

Since it first began as a pilot program in the Fall of 2004 and expanded agency-wide in the summer of 2005, the program has reached more than 10,000 diabetes or pre-diabetes patients throughout Chicago and suburban areas, within its network of 47 health centers.

“Many people have diabetes but do not know it,” said Jeni Fabian, ACCESS’s director of its chronic disease program.

Diabetes is associated with heart disease, chronic kidney problems, strokes, blindness and amputations, among other things. Patients who cannot afford diabetes services and supplies are more likely to stop taking medications and experience a higher risk of complications, adding to the costly burden diabetes places on the health care system.

ACCESS’ diabetes program uses various tools, which include health education and self-management components that feature group visits and presentations by dietitians, podiatrists and ophthalmologists.

Foot exams are provided on a regular basis and “dashboards” provide quarterly summaries of patients’ progress. Another component is the physician “check-up” tool that ensures patients keep at least six appointments a year. For more information about the diabetes program call, 866/882-2237.

-Robert Felton