In spite of the fact that nearly 26 million people in the United States alone have diabetes — not to mention the 79 million who have prediabetes — many people still don't know some of the basic facts about the condition.
As someone who's lived with diabetes for more than a decade, I believe it's important to share what I know! Here are five things I wish everyone knew about diabetes:
1. There are two very different types of diabetes.
Well, there are actually five types total, but the other three are not as common and are not easily confused with other types. Comparing type 1 and type 2 diabetes is like comparing the flu with strep throat; many of the symptoms may look the same, but the inner workings of each disease are very different.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, and it can develop at any age — even in toddlers or adults in their 40s and 50s. There is currently no way of preventing the onset of type 1 diabetes, nor is it caused by eating too much candy.
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body does not properly produce and/or use insulin correctly, and genetics play a large role in determining someone’s risk — not just their weight or diet. While being overweight and having a poor diet can contribute to and exacerbate the disease, those factors alone have not been definitively shown to cause type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can and does develop in people who are thin, and it also does not develop in every single person who is overweight or obese.
2. I will not die if I eat sugar.
Every year, at least five people probably ask me, “Will you die if you eat dessert?” The answer is no. Candy and cookies contain carbohydrates, largely from sugar, but their impact on blood sugar levels is not much different from the impact of whole grain toast, strawberries, or oatmeal. All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose during digestion, and therefore raise blood glucose and require insulin in order to use that glucose for energy.
People who are on insulin need to count their carbohydrates and dose the appropriate amount of insulin for their bodies to cover those carbohydrates. However, just like it’s better for non-diabetics to eat less candy and more wholesome foods, the same is true for diabetics.
3. People with diabetes are not doomed to losing their legs.
The next time you meet a person with diabetes, restrain yourself from saying one thing we hear all the time: “My grandmother had diabetes. She lost her legs, and then she died.” While I’m sorry about your grandmother, people with diabetes today have incredible technology and modern types of insulin that, when used properly, allow us to live long and healthy lives.
If a person with diabetes chooses to neglect her diabetes management responsibilities, she's putting herself at risk for developing neuropathy in her feet, legs, and hands, but even complications like retinopathy (nerve damage in the eyes) can develop in people with well-controlled diabetes. Either way, we don’t enjoy being reminded of the worst-case scenario our future may hold for us.
4. Raw food diets or veganism or low-carb diets do not cure us.
Following a restrictive diet can certainly help a person with diabetes — type 1 or type 2 — attain healthier blood sugar levels, but that does not mean we are cured. A low-carbohydrate diet simply reduces the number one thing that spikes our blood sugar levels and requires insulin in order to be used for energy, but following a low-carb diet does not thus mean our diabetes is gone and cured. Instead, it means we are using that diet as a part of our diabetes management to achieve healthy blood sugar levels. I should also mention that cinnamon, hemp seed oil, and your grandmother’s secret applesauce recipe are not going to cure us either. We are inundated with scams and cure nonsense year-round via email, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
5. Managing diabetes is never simple.
Neither type 1 or type 2 diabetes is straightforward and simple. People with type 1 diabetes must monitor their blood sugar levels constantly throughout the day while trying to estimate accurate insulin doses based on the carbohydrates they eat, and other variables such as growth hormones, cortisol levels, adrenaline, illness, and stress. Every time we exercise, we have to work very hard to keep our blood sugar from dropping or risking based on the type of exercise being performed. It is a constant balancing act. People with type 2 diabetes will manage their disease through exercise and diet, or oral medications, or insulin depending on their body’s needs. Every person’s body is different. Every person’s insulin doses or medication doses are different. There is no easy game plan for diabetes. Even if you eat all the perfect foods, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise daily, diabetes requires constant attention and management — and there are no days off.
What are a few of the misconceptions or myths you’ve heard about diabetes? The list is endless!