All of a sudden, you have to be super careful about the amount of sugar you ingest. Your eating habits change overnight. You may have to prick your finger numerous times a week to check your blood glucose level. You’re faced with a chronic disease that will take time and effort to manage. You’ve been told you have diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 23.6 million people in the United States (data from the 2007 National Diabetes Fact Sheet) have the disease, or almost 8 percent of the population. When you look at the growing number of diabetes cases, one health risk simply can’t be ignored: Obesity, and with it, the growing chance of cardiovascular trouble.

In an interview with Men and Health: It’s a Guy Thing, Dr. Gerald Bernstein says Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have one thing in common. “The failure of insulin, one way or the other, results in elevated blood sugar.” Bernstein, Vice President, Medical Affairs, Director, Generex Biotechnology, says while insulin is important for growth and for protein construction, “the main role of insulin is to move glucose into the cells for energy…especially into the muscles.” He says higher blood sugar levels can produce acute problems, such as dehydration and coma. Over a long period of time, especially with Type 2 diabetes, eyes, kidneys and nerves can be affected.

When you look at the upsurge in diabetes cases, obesity figures prominently. “The fact is we have this raging epidemic of obesity,” says Bernstein, adding that “obesity presents a roadblock for the effective use of insulin by the body. That puts an early strain on the insulin-producing cells…so those cells can’t keep up with the food that’s coming in.” On the other hand, people with a normal weight, and who perform regular exercise, says Bernstein, may be able to hold off clinical diabetes until they are well into their 60s. Bernstein, who is also an associate clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and attending physician at Beth Israel Medical Center, presents some troubling statistics: “The Centers for Disease Control, in 2000, made the statement that one out of every three children born at that time will develop diabetes in their lifetime.”

Bernstein says, at one time, Type 2 diabetes was referred to as “old age diabetes.” Not anymore. In the last 10 to15 years, says Bernstein, more children have developed Type 2 diabetes. A big factor, as more younger people develop high glucose levels, is cardiovascular risk. “Looking at our population today, we’re going to have a lot of 15-year-olds, who 20 years from now, will have a heart attack or stroke unless they’ve done something to reduce that risk.”

Considering that risk, federal intervention is needed to help stem the obesity epidemic, says Bernstein. “I think as a public health problem, this needs federal action to mandate that every child in grade school, under the age of 18 or less than 12th grade, must have one full hour of physical activity at school every day, not twice a week, not three times a week.”

There are positive steps we can all follow. According to Bernstein, if you want to reduce your chance of getting the disease, make sure you’re under medical care so you know what your risk factors are. At your doctor’s office, talk about starting an exercise program. Also, consider a nutritionist who can help you understand changes in your food intake.

Bernstein glances to the future and offers an uncomfortable prediction. “I’ll predict at this point that, barring a major change in the behavior of the population of the United States, that in another 20 years, about 2030, we’re going to see a rash of cardiovascular events in a remarkably young population.”