Every five minutes, someone is diagnosed with diabetes. So you probably know someone who has the condition, or you have it yourself. HFG spotlights eight common diabetes myths.
Myth: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes
Diabetes is Australia’s fastest-growing chronic disease, with close to 300 people being diagnosed every day. Almost two million of us have the condition, and roughly 500,000 of these don’t even know they have it.
A fog of misconception and myth swirls around diabetes, especially in relation to diet, making it hard to know the truth. It’s time to shine a light on some of the most prevalent beliefs and reveal the reality, backed by the latest research.
Reality: Not always
The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but it’s not linked to lifestyle and has nothing to do with eating too much sugar, as some people imagine. For type 2 diabetes, diet does play a role, but even here the myth does not give us the big picture.
One of the major risk factors for type 2 diabetes is being overweight, which can be caused by an over-consumption of any food type, not just sugar. Nonetheless, the wide availability of sugary foods makes it easy to see how people can go overboard on a regular basis, leading to weight gain and an increased risk of insulin resistance.
Myth: People with diabetes need a low-carb diet
Reality: Not entirely true
Evidence from a recent Australian study shows that a diet lower in carbohydrates and higher in healthy fats can help reduce glycated haemoglobin for up to 12 months in people with type 2 diabetes.
Yet carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy, and wholegrain choices are a great source of fibre and B-vitamins. Everyone has very different requirements for carbohydrates based on age, gender, body weight and activity level.
To help manage your blood glucose levels, choose carbohydrates that are:
High in fibre
Have a low glycaemic index, and
Are the right portion for your activity levels.
Myth: People with diabetes need to give up their favourite foods
Reality: Absolutely not true
There’s actually no defined ‘diabetes diet’. People living with diabetes are encouraged to follow a healthy, balanced diet, just like everyone else.
That means that all foods are allowed, and even ‘treat’ foods can be enjoyed occasionally and in moderation. So, while someone who has diabetes might have to tweak how they eat to include more ‘everyday’ foods and less ‘special occasion’ ones, nothing needs to be given up.
Myth: Diabetes is reversible
Reality: Not necessarily true
While diabetes is not reversible, emerging evidence from the UK indicates that some people with type 2 diabetes can put their diabetes into ‘remission’ by following a very low-kilojoule weight loss diet.
However, this does not mean that type 2 diabetes has been cured. Participants in the UK study still need to have ongoing checkups (including complication screening) and maintain their weight loss, otherwise their blood glucose levels may go up again. It’s also important to note that not all participants in the study achieved remission, even if they lost weight.
Myth: Diabetes is a ‘fat person’s’ disease
Weight doesn’t play any part at all in type 1 diabetes. In fact, unexplained weight loss is a symptom of type 1. With type 2 diabetes, being overweight is one of the risk factors, but it isn’t by any means the only one.
Plenty of other risk factors can occur in people who are within the healthy weight range, such as having a family history of diabetes or being over the age of 55. Other risks include being very inactive, having gestational diabetes during pregnancy, or coming from certain ethnic backgrounds.
Myth: People with diabetes need to snack between meals
Reality: Not always
Enjoying regular meals and snacks can be an easy way to spread carbohydrates throughout the day and help avoid large spikes in blood sugar, but it’s not essential for everyone with diabetes.
However, if you require insulin or take particular diabetes medication, then you might need supper and between-meal snacks to prevent low blood sugar levels. This is quite individualised, so speak to your dietitian to find out what’s best for you.
Myth: Fruit is high in sugar so should be avoided
Fruit is brimming with healthy fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Yes, it contains natural sugar, but the benefits of fruit as a whole far outweigh the sugar content. Further, most fruits have a low glycaemic index (GI), so their sugars are released slowly, preventing large spikes in blood sugar levels.
What is really more important is the timing and quantity of the fruit you eat. Instead of having multiple pieces of fruit in one sitting, aim to enjoy two–to–three pieces spread out over the day with meals, or as a snack. And leave the skin on, as the fibre also acts as a brake on digestion.
Myths: Diabetes is not that serious
The complications of diabetes can be severe, so it’s simply untrue you can have a condition called ‘mild’ diabetes. While it usually takes several years for complications to eventuate, diabetes can have a profound impact on many of your body’s systems.
Some of the more serious complications include blindness and kidney disease. You can even get foot ulcers and risk amputation, not to mention the impact diabetes might have on your overall quality of life and mental health. To add to that, having diabetes means you’re four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. All in all, diabetes is a very serious condition indeed.
Type 1 vs type 2
There’s often a lot of confusion about the main two types of diabetes. Both type 1 and type 2 result in high blood glucose levels, but they develop in different ways.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. Your body destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, so that it becomes unable to produce insulin. People who have type 1 diabetes must inject insulin for the rest of their life.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body is not able to make enough insulin and/or the insulin is not working properly. Type 2 diabetes can be managed with a healthy diet and regular physical activity — however, medication is often needed as well.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, accounting for 85–90 per cent of all cases. It’s a condition where there’s too much glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. Glucose enters the bloodstream when the body breaks down carb-rich foods like breads, pasta, fruit, potatoes, yoghurt and a range of sweetened foods and drinks.
What does insulin do?
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. Insulin’s role is to take glucose from the blood and allow it to enter the brain and muscle cells where it is then used as energy. Type 2 diabetes develops when there is a problem with insulin — either the body is not producing enough and/or insulin is not working properly, leading to the growth of high blood glucose levels.
Who gets it?
Type 2 diabetes used to be more common in older adults; however, we are now seeing more and more young people and even some children being diagnosed with the condition.
What are the risk factors?
Risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes are:
Having a family history of type 2 diabetes
Being diagnosed with pre-diabetes
Being above your healthy weight range
Having an inactive lifestyle
Having an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background
Being from a Melanesian, Polynesian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern or Indian background
Having gestational diabetes during pregnancy
Having polycystic ovarian syndrome
Taking some types of antipsychotic or steroid
Is there a cure?
There is no absolute cure for type 2 diabetes, but everyone with the condition can live a long and healthy life with good management. The cornerstone of type 2 diabetes management involves maintaining a healthy weight, having a healthy diet, and regular physical activity.
Over time, glucose-lowering medications (in the form of tablets or injectable medications) may be needed to help you keep your blood glucose levels within the target range.
Melissa is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a love of healthy, delicious food. She is passionate about helping others to lead healthier lives and teaching people to use nutrition to better their health.