Did you know that 1 in 3 Canadians is living with diabetes or prediabetes? Unfortunately, those who develop diabetes are younger and younger, due in part to climbing obesity rates. Worst of all, types 2 diabetes significantly increases the risk of coronary artery disease. And, it can lead to other serious consequences such as blindness. In short, diabetes is concerning.  

However, there’s some good news. Type 2 diabetes is no longer an incurable disease. Research now shows that it can be beaten. 

A reversible disease 

“Recent studies show that with healthy lifestyle strategies, it’s possible to control this type of diabetes. And even reverse it altogether,” says Dr. Martin Juneau. Dr. Juneau is a cardiologist and Director of Prevention at the Montreal Heart Institute. Until recently, most thought that remission from type 2 diabetes was not achievable. 

Dr. Juneau supervises the Diabetes Prevention Clinic sponsored by Sun Life. He has some good news for those worried about diabetes. “You can halt the development of diabetes completely if you: 

  • lose 5% of your body weight,  
  • eat a Mediterranean-type diet, and  
  • get 30 minutes of exercise per day.”  

Lifestyle adjustments

The challenge, however, is to actually make those changes! And that’s where the Montreal Heart Institute’s Diabetes Prevention Clinic sponsored by Sun Life comes in. Established in 2019 with a donation of $450,000 from Sun Life, the Clinic offers an intensive lifestyle modification program. It’s the only one of its kind in Canada. 

Since its opening, the Clinic at the EPIC Center has:  

  • seen 368 patients,  
  • conducted more than 17,000 fitness sessions, and 
  • held 1,950 individual meetings.  

And the results are impressive indeed:  

  • 60% of participants reduced their waist circumference by an average of 5 cm, 
  • the majority of patients improved their blood test results, in particular their blood glucose levels, and 
  • 20% achieved complete remission! 

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A multidisciplinary and personalized approach

“The goal is to help people take charge of their health. So, we offer an intensive program for bringing their blood sugar down to normal levels. Ultimately, we want to stop prescribing medication,” explains Dr. Juneau.  

To achieve this, patients receive support for one year from a team consisting of:  

  • a nurse,  
  • a kinesiologist,  
  • a nutritionist, and  
  • medical staff.

When he enrolled at the Clinic in July 2020, Gilles Beaulieu weighed 190 pounds. Today, he weighs 167. And, he has completed 317 sessions on the stationary bike, riding for 35-45 minutes each time! “My wife walks 60 minutes on her treadmill every day. We’re each other’s support network.” 

Gilles was already physically active. He has been a registered member of the EPIC Center since 1999. He viewed his participation in the Clinic program as a challenge. “I’m the kind of guy who likes a challenge,” says the affable retiree. He really enjoyed the program, including his meetings with nutritionist, Élise Latour. “She gave me good advice. Although there were some things I knew already, a few reminders didn't hurt!”  

So what changes did he make to his eating habits? “I’m not crazy about hamburgers or pizza, but I do have a sweet tooth. I used to eat a lot of candy before I met Élise. I’ve really cut back on that now, and it’s had a positive impact on my diabetes.” 

He now includes nuts as a snack, but admits that chia seeds are sometimes a bit of a struggle! “I also stopped eating so much full-fat cheese. I’ll have cretons once in a while, but I won’t eat the whole thing. Since my meetings with Élise, it’s like a light bulb goes on whenever I’m about to make a bad move with my diet,” he says with a laugh.

  • Did you know that you can find a nutritionist near you by using the Lumino Health Provider Search tool? It’s available to everyone and provides access to a variety of helpful health resources.  

Finding your motivation

Most of the patients seen at the Clinic are highly motivated, according to Élise Latour. Some of them do not have diabetes yet but are at risk of developing the disease. In some cases they are more reluctant to change their habits, as they don’t have any symptoms. “To them I say, ‘Exactly, and we don’t want you to develop any!’ It’s as though there’s a little yellow flag that’s waving. We aren’t going to wait until it’s red before we take action,” she explains.  

“A doctor I once worked with used to say that diabetes is like having cancer from the top of your head to the tips of your toes,” she says. What makes the disease even more insidious is that a patient can live with it for many years before symptoms develop. “That’s why prevention is so important” stresses the nutritionist.  

Gilles Beaulieu agrees. “You have to understand why you’re doing this,” he says earnestly. “My wife and I have been married for 43 years. My priority is making sure I take care of and provide for her. I want to stay in shape as long as possible so that I won't become a burden for her.”  

One patient at a time, one habit at a time

The pandemic made 2020 a challenging year for the Diabetes Prevention Clinic sponsored by Sun Life. Part of the Clinic’s staff had to be redeployed to work at the hospital. Public health restrictions cased the gym to close. But patients were able to receive personalized follow-up by phone at regular intervals. Staff also created a series of home workout videos. 

And now that things are getting back to normal? Dr. Juneau would like his patients to have access to a psychologist specializing in behavior change strategies. “Psychological support plays an important role in a process like this. It gives people the tools they need to achieve their goals and consolidate their gains.”   

He would also like the Clinic to be able to serve even more patients. In the meantime, the whole team at the Diabetes Prevention Clinic sponsored by Sun Life, will continue working to defeat diabetes. One patient at a time. One habit at a time.