Trips to the grocery store take a little longer these days for Eliza Linen.
The 64-year-old Browns Ferry resident has abandoned her usual style of tossing in bags of potato chips and boxes of treats – whatever looked good as she went up and down the aisles. Now, Linen carefully and closely calculates calories, grams and more from the labels before deciding whether the item makes it into the cart.
That simple step – paying more attention to the food you eat – is part of a doctor-ordered overall lifestyle shift that has put Linen on a path away from high risks for diabetes and other health issues.
“It takes me longer to grocery shop now, but that is a good thing. I’m reading labels,” she said.
Linen’s journey started a couple of years ago. After a neck injury in 2010 sidelined her, she put on weight. She couldn’t exercise because of the pain. She was up to 236 pounds when her physician advised her that her lifestyle had to change. Linen was becoming more at risk for diabetes, a chronic condition that is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States and one she has watched negatively affect loved ones.
But it wasn’t an easy journey, especially in the beginning. She started walking outside near her home or in a nearby gym to get exercise, and her daughters bought her a FitBit for Mother’s Day to track her steps and exercise.
“It’s been the best gift I’ve ever gotten,” she said.
She was starting to see progress – she lost nine pounds – then she found even more motivation. While attending a health fair at Belin Memorial United Methodist Church, she saw information about the Tidelands Health diabetes prevention program, which offers education and support to help people improve their health and delay or prevent the onset of diabetes. The program is only the ninth of its kind in South Carolina to earn full recognition from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She and her husband Stephen didn’t hesitate to sign up. They started attending classes in Murrells Inlet, but soon Linen helped start a group much closer to home at the Choppee Recreation Center at Northwest Regional Park – where participants often show up early to meetings to walk laps around the gym.
Then, it all started to click. During the year-long program, Linen and the other participants learned about better eating habits – from portion control to reading labels – and were encouraged to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
“I just really thank God for it. It really helped me,” said Linen, who graduated from the program at the end of 2018 but continues to attend classes. “I’m going to do it again because it really motivates me. It encourages me to keep moving and eat healthy.”
A new you
Now, Linen walks several miles almost daily and has made drastic changes in her eating habits, using the measuring cups given to participants to ensure she has the correct portion size, swapping fried foods for grilled or baked and not over-indulging. Gone are the creamy dressings; now she gets vinaigrette on the side. And forget the canned vegetables – she enjoys fresh veggies from her garden. Her husband and family have benefited from the healthier eating, too.
“It makes me more aware of what I put in my mouth,” Linen said. “I’m eating slower and listening to my brain telling me I’m full. I can remember when I would eat three pancakes. Now, I can barely eat one. I just don’t push myself to try to eat it.”
The result? Linen lost another 19 pounds and four inches in her waist. But more importantly, all the contributing factors that could lead to diabetes – cholesterol, A1C – are down, too.
“Everything is better,” she said. “This program motivates me.”
Dr. Julia Wren, internal medicine and pediatrics physician with Pawleys Pediatriacs and Adult Medicine, encouraged Linen to join the program after her A1C levels inched up near the diabetes range.
“She took that and ran with it with a vengeance,” Dr. Wren said. “I’m just so thrilled for her and proud of her.”
The program worked so well for Linen, she continued recruiting others, including her sister-in-law Ida Lance, 78, who also was trying to adhere to doctor’s orders to lose weight and exercise. She had been losing off and on for about two years, from 220 pounds to 162 pounds.
“I just lose it real slow,” she said. “Since I went to the class, it really helped me a lot more.”
But it’s not just about the weight. Lance’s A1C – a blood test that measures your average blood sugar – is down. She no longer suffers from sleep apnea, no longer has to take vitamin D supplements and has scaled back her cholesterol and high blood pressure medications.
Participants weigh in before each meeting and track everything they eat, which many say is the biggest challenge but a valuable part of helping them realize how much they eat.
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“You’ll never know how much food you are really consuming until you track it,” said Shawn Garrett, a community health worker at Tidelands Community Care Network who has taught diabetes prevention program classes for two years. “They know if they eat badly they are going to see it on the scale.”
Many program participants say the camaraderie and support they give each other makes all the difference.
“Just to be around other people really motivates me and helps me a lot,” Lance said. “All of us together are trying to reach the same goal.”
Garrett credits Linen with helping recruit participants – the 2019 class has started with twice as many participants as last year. Her results are the selling point: look at the progress of a woman who has limited ability to exercise because of a neck injury, and she’s still had great success.
“Every little bit of walking she can do helps,” Dr. Wren said. “It’s such an encouraging story for others – to know that somebody a lot like them can do this. You can still do little things that can make a difference.
“She’s definitely been moving more, walking more. More than anything, what I see in her is having a purpose, having a focus, having something she feels she is contributing to.”
Before class one March morning, participants worked up a sweat walking laps around the Choppee Recreation Center gym. Linda Canteen, who lost the most weight – 28 pounds – during the 2018 class, bellowed out a song and cheered on participants from the bleachers. Like Linen, she may have graduated, but she’s not done being part of this special group.
“I just like the camaraderie,” said Canteen, 68. “When we come in here, we tease each other, support each other.”
The assistant minister at Nazareth AME Church – who has a family history of cancer – wanted to be healthy so she could help others.
“I have to take control of my life,” she remembered thinking before joining the program. “I need to know better. I had to discipline myself. I’m a mom of five. I want to be here as long as I can for my children.”
‘Better than anything I can prescribe’
Dr. Wren regularly recommends the program to patients at risk of developing diabetes because it gives them knowledge about nutrition and exercise and also provides an invaluable support network that keeps participants motivated.
“The biggest thing I love about this: It isn’t medication. It isn’t anything expensive. It isn’t complicated – it may be hard, it may not be easy – but it isn’t complicated,” she said. “And then the support working with other people. It’s better than anything I can prescribe as a doctor.”
To be eligible for the Tidelands Health diabetes prevention program, residents must be at risk for diabetes or have been identified as having pre-diabetes. Classes are offered in Choppee, Georgetown, Murrells Inlet and other locations. Each participant has his or her own weight-loss goal, but all participants share in the desire to live healthier lives.
“I meet them where they are and help build them up,” Garrett said. “You can absolutely see people losing the weight and how excited they are by the results. They start to see results – they lose the weight and they change their lifestyle. You will come out better than you were.”
In 2018, the 16 program participants in Choppee lost a combined 179 pounds. Since the initiative started nearly two years ago, 177 participants have lost a total of 1,791 pounds.
Linen credits the program with giving her the motivation to stick with a plan to live a healthier life.
“A combination of everything works together,” she said. “We have a support team going on that really helps us.”