10 Diabetes myths debunked

We correct common misunderstandings about the disease

Published: July 2009

Is it really true that eating sugar causes diabetes? And who says you can't eat sugar if you already have the disease? Read on to see those and other myths debunked.

1. Myth: You have to be overweight to develop diabetes; thin people don't get the disease.
There's no doubt that obesity is a major contributor to type 2 diabetes. Genetics also plays a role. But blood sugar can creep up with age, even in skinny people. Our experts recommend that people ages 45 and older have their blood sugar checked every three years. Start earlier if you are overweight and experience symptoms. It's also a good idea if you have one or more additional risk factors, including being sedentary; being of non-Caucasian ancestry; having a family history of diabetes or a personal history of gestational diabetes, heart disease, or polycystic ovary syndrome; or having high blood pressure, cholesterol, or triglyceride levels.

2. Myth: You can get diabetes from eating too much sugar.
While continually overdosing on sweets can help trigger diabetes in someone with prediabetes or another predisposition, it is not a direct cause of it (although the sweet stuff can make you pack on pounds, a major risk factor). People with type 2 diabetes gradually develop resistance to insulin, the hormone responsible for helping to convert blood sugar into energy, and diabetes develops when the pancreas can no longer keep up with the increased demand. In the less common type 1 form, the body's immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

3. Myth: You'll know if your blood sugar is too high because you'll develop telltale symptoms.
Not necessarily. Slightly elevated blood sugar usually doesn't trigger symptoms. And even in people with moderately elevated blood sugar, the symptoms may be so mild at first that they are easily overlooked. With high blood sugar levels, some of the more common symptoms include fatigue, increased hunger or thirst, weight loss, sores that don't heal, and more frequent urination, especially at night.

4. Myth: People with diabetes have to follow a special diet.
A healthy diet for a person with diabetes is typically identical to a healthy diet for anyone else. It should include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy products, and moderate amounts of healthier fats such as those found in olive and canola oil. And yes, people with diabetes can still enjoy sweets as long as they work them into their meal plan carefully.

5. Myth: People with diabetes should limit their physical activity.
Quite the opposite. Exercise not only helps control blood sugar but also weight and blood pressure, and will improve cholesterol levels. Physical activity also reduces the risk of common diabetes complications, such as heart disease and nerve damage.

But workouts can sometimes lower blood sugar too much, causing hypoglycemia, especially in people who take insulin or certain long-acting oral medications. To help prevent it, don't work out on an empty stomach, stay hydrated, and talk with your doctor about checking your blood sugar before and after exercise. It's also a good idea to have a snack on hand to bring your blood sugar back up if you start to feel shaky, weak, or light-headed.

6. Myth: Everyone with diabetes needs insulin injections to control the disease.
People with type 1 disease typically need daily insulin injections because their body produces little or none of the hormone. But many people with type 2 disease can take pills to help keep their blood sugar in check.

7. Myth: Everyone with diabetes should routinely monitor blood sugar at home.
Not necessarily. People who don't use insulin and who have good control of their blood sugar may need to check it at home only occasionally, if at all. (Of course, they should still have it checked at regular doctor visits.) But those who use insulin need to keep close tabs on blood sugar so they can adjust their doses if necessary and guard against dangerous drops in blood sugar levels. In addition, those who are newly diagnosed may want to monitor blood sugar patterns more closely at first to see how they fluctuate with meals, exercise, stress, and medications.

8. Myth: Type 1 diabetes is a more serious disease than the type 2 form.
Left uncontrolled, both types of diabetes can lead to serious complications, including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, gum infections, and amputation.

9. Myth: Most people with diabetes will eventually need kidney dialysis or have other disabling complications.
With regular checkups and good blood sugar control, serious complications occur less frequently.

10. Myth: Once you have type 2 diabetes you have it for the rest of your life.
Most of the people who took our nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults echoed this gloomy view. In truth, while type 1 diabetes is currently not curable, the type 2 form of the disease, which is far more common and often rooted in lifestyle factors such as inactivity and obesity, can usually be improved by adopting healthier habits.

See our complete guide to preventing and treating diabetes.

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