There’s a lot of information about diabetes floating around. And that’s probably a good thing! Besides the fact that diabetes has something to do with blood sugar and diet, how much do you really know? But this information is being spread by many different sources, and some of it isn’t supported by science. The best way to safeguard yourself from falling victim to these myths is to educate yourself as much as you can. And if you are concerned that you might be at risk, talk to your doctor about getting a blood test.
Though diabetes can be prevented and treated with medications and careful monitoring, it cannot be cured. It’s important to know the facts about diabetes, whether you have the disease or not. But the misinformation spread about diabetes can actually be dangerous.
The more people are properly educated about diabetes, the better care people can receive when they are at risk. And diabetes is a major health risk in the United States, affecting over 30 million Americans according to the American Diabetes Association. It’s currently the seventh leading cause of death due to an increased risk of heart problems and other complications. Protect yourself — read up on these 20 things you probably didn’t know about diabetes and diet.
When you think of diabetes, you’re probably thinking of Type 2. Type 2 diabetes occurs when a person develops high blood glucose levels and can develop later in life. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type, but it’s not the only one. There are two other types as well: Type 1 and gestational. Type 1 diabetes occurs when a person’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells, resulting in little to no insulin in the blood. This condition often is evident in childhood, though a person can be diagnosed later in life. Gestational diabetes occurs in women who are pregnant, and almost always disappears after giving birth.
Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed when blood sugar levels rise past a certain threshold. Blood sugar levels tend to rise when a person develops insulin resistance, which occurs when the body does not respond adequately to the hormone insulin by storing sugar that’s floating around in the blood. Normally, insulin indicates to the body that blood sugar has elevated and needs to be lowered by taking sugar from the blood and storing it as usable energy elsewhere.
Rethink your words before you say a sugary snack tastes like it’s going to give you diabetes. You could be fueling this popular misconception. According to the American Diabetes Association, Type 2 diabetes is not caused by sugar, but instead is caused by genetic and lifestyle factors. Eating large amounts of sugar as a part of your daily diet is one of many lifestyle factors that could raise your risk, including smoking cigarettes, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and living a sedentary lifestyle , none of which on their own cause diabetes.
This is another popular misconception, and a harmful one. Being fat does not automatically mean you will get diabetes, nor does fatness cause diabetes. Fatness is a risk factor for diabetes — one of many, according to the American Diabetes Association. Another risk factor for diabetes is ethnicity. So saying that fatness causes diabetes would be as erroneous as saying that being Asian American or Hispanic causes diabetes. You can see how this might be harmful. This idea contributes to weight stigma, a cultural phenomenon wherein people in larger bodies are treated with less respect. Additionally, this misconception often results in fat individuals receiving lower quality medical care. A doctor may assume a fat person should be screened for diabetes due to their size, when in fact something else is going on.
Going off of that, it is possible for a thin person to get diabetes. 85 percent of people with diabetes are considered overweight or obese, but it’s important not to overlook the 15 percent who are not. In fact, studies show that people who are of what BMI considers normal or underweight are more likely to die from heart disease or other diabetes complications than people who are considered overweight or obese.
Just because a person has diabetes does not mean that they need to eliminate sugar or sweets. Carbohydrate-rich foods, such as white rice and white bread, are also OK to eat for diabetics. These individuals do need to be careful with the foods they are consuming and keep tabs on their blood sugar — but according to the American Diabetes Association, these foods are perfectly safe for diabetics to consume.
Not only can they still eat sugar, but diabetics actually need fast-acting sugars (such as those from candy, soda, or white bread) when their blood glucose dips too low. This can happen in people with diabetes who take insulin. The American Diabetes Association recommends that when this happens, the person quickly consumes something with 15 grams of carbohydrates, such as a half cup of fruit juice or some candies.
Diabetics aren’t the only ones! It’s normal for your blood sugar to fluctuate. When you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, your blood sugar will rise. You might even feel a few side effects afterwards. When you don’t eat for a long period of time, your blood sugar will fall. No one state is better than the other — in either of these two scenarios, your body’s natural insulin response automatically balances your blood sugar out. For diabetics, either a high or a low blood sugar can be dangerous, since their insulin response is not always sufficient to handle these normal fluctuations.
When a person has an elevated blood sugar level but has not met the threshold for diabetes, they are what’s called “pre-diabetic.” These individuals are often told to lose weight to prevent their blood sugar from elevating further. There is some evidence that a weight-loss diet may be effective in preventing diabetes (though it may not be effective in losing weight). However, even if you do lose weight, you may not avoid diabetes. There are other influences that play a role in the disease, as well, including genetics and lifestyle habits. When thinking about preventing diabetes, it is important to look at your health holistically — keeping in mind your mental health, sleep, and other health markers in addition to diet and exercise.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no “diabetes diet.” A healthy diet for diabetics looks just like a healthy diet for any other human being — and depends largely on the individual and his or her body. “Eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is necessary for everyone, not just individuals who are at risk for or are living with elevated blood sugars,” explained registered dietitian Megrette Fletcher, who specializes in working with patients with diabetes. Rather than following a specific, diabetes-focused diet, Fletcher advises focusing on mindful eating and filling your diet with nutrient-rich foods.
“Recommendations for people with diabetes can drive people to feel that they have to eat perfectly,” explained Fletcher. “This can cause people to cut out entire food groups or macronutrients.” Macronutrients are the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that make up food. Some people also consider alcohol to be a macronutrient, due to the fact that it has calories that the body can use for energy.
“When your macronutrients are out of balance, you may feel tired and run down because the body doesn’t have enough energy or micronutrients to function. Additionally, it is really difficult to eat a diet that is void of an entire macronutrient for any length of time,” Fletcher said. “The body physically needs these nutrients and after a day, week, or month, it becomes impossible to ignore these biological needs without overeating or developing destructive thoughts and thinking.”
It definitely can be made into something complicated. But according to Fletcher, eating well for diabetes can be approached similarly to eating well for any average person. “Everybody needs micronutrients. These are the things that don’t have calories but are essential to your health: water, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” Fletcher explained. “Trying to get an adequate amount of water throughout the day is a great start. Choosing to include nutrient-rich bread, cereal, fruits, and vegetables will help you get fiber, vitamins, and minerals as well.” Fletcher also advises trying to find a comfortable balance of macronutrients. “Macronutrients give you energy, so changing the balance of your macronutrients can give you more energy before and after eating,” she said. “For example, if you are feeling drained and tried after eating, experiment a little. Maybe add some protein, fat, or carbs to your meal and see if your energy level shifts. If you don't have enough energy to make it to your next meal, consider adding a snack.”
When trying to eat well for diabetes, it’s important to listen to your body’s natural cues of hunger and fullness, as well as energy levels. “Banish the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (as in ‘I was good at dinner last night’ or ‘Fast food is bad’),” advised Michelle May, MD, co-author of “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes.” “That approach leads to guilt, which fuels the eat-repent-repeat cycle.” These feelings of guilt and other emotions after eating can disrupt your ability to tune in to natural signals, making these intuitive decisions more difficult than they need to be. “When you don’t get caught up in guilt and shame, you’re able to learn from your experiences,” May explained. “When guilt is no longer a factor, common sense prevails!”
In both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, genetics play an important role. A person with a family history of diabetes is likely to inherit a predisposition to the disease. This predisposition can later be triggered by environmental or lifestyle factors. A person can prevent this by altering their lifestyle — though there is no way to guarantee the genetic predisposition will not be triggered.
Though Type 1 diabetes often has obvious symptoms very early, people with Type 2 or gestational diabetes might show signs that are far more subtle. In fact, many people may not notice any physical symptoms prior to their diagnosis. For this reason, a blood test is the only way to tell for sure whether or not a person has diabetes.
According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23.8 percent of people living with diabetes in the United States are undiagnosed, meaning that they have diabetes and don’t know it. This can be dangerous, since these individuals may not take care to prevent their blood sugar from elevating even higher, leading to potentially deadly complications.
Alcohol and diabetes are interrelated, but not in the way people used to think. Back in the day, doctors and scientists didn’t know what mechanisms in the body caused diabetes. As a result, treatment propositions were often off-base. A book called “The Starvation Treatment of Diabetes” explained a method whereby patients were given diets consisting solely of whiskey mixed with black coffee. Patients would drink the dark take on an Irish coffee once every two hours, with no food allowed. Luckily, modern science has since caught on to less miserable treatments.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 22 percent of people with diabetes use some type of herbal therapy and 31 percent use dietary supplements. However, these methods have not been shown to help manage diabetes in any scientific evaluations. While it’s not necessarily unsafe to take these supplements, it can be unsafe to leave diabetes unmanaged.
Physical health isn’t the only thing that can impact diabetes. Some research indicates that mental health markers, such as stress, can worsen or put someone at risk for diabetes. Long-term stress can actually elevate baseline blood glucose levels. To mitigate stress, take a look at your day-to-day habits. How many of these bad habits do you have that can increase stress and anxiety?
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