Debunking 6 Myths About Diabetes

by Katelyn Castro

Diabetes. Sugar. Insulin. Shots. You’ve probably heard of diabetes before, but unless you or someone close to you has diabetes, the media may have warped your perception of the disease. About one in ten Americans has diabetes, yet there are still many stereotypes surrounding the disease.

Even as a nutrition student, I didn’t really understand the serious and complex management of diabetes until two years ago. Working at a camp with kids and counselors with type 1 diabetes taught me more about the disease than I could have learned from any textbook. No one with diabetes wants be defined by their disease, but I’m confident that they do want others to understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.

Since November was National Diabetes Month, now is the perfect time to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding diabetes. I reached out to friends who have diabetes or have siblings with diabetes, and reflected on my own experiences to get a better idea of the misconceptions out there. Below are some common myths about diabetes from a collection of personal experiences, stories, and conversations. Let’s get the facts straight:

1. Myth: If you take insulin, it means your diabetes is poorly controlled.

Fact: Insulin keeps people with type 1 diabetes alive. While most people have a working pancreas that makes the insulin you need to take up energy and keep blood glucose levels under control, those with type 1 diabetes do not. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin regularly through a pump or injections. About 5% of the population living with diabetes has type 1 diabetes.

People with type 2 diabetes, the more common type of diabetes, may not need insulin at first. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is progressive so the body gradually becomes resistant to insulin and can’t use it properly. A healthy diet, exercise, and medication can keep blood glucose levels in check in the early stages, but insulin may be needed eventually. In either type of diabetes, taking insulin to control blood glucose levels is critical for your health.

2. Myth: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.

type-2-diabetesFact: Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including exposure to viruses or bacteria. Researchers are still trying to figure how these factors interact, but eating too much sugar is clearly not the cause.

Although eating too many sweets is not healthy for anyone, it’s not the direct cause of type 2 diabetes either. But, excess calories from any food can lead to obesity, which is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. When someone with prediabetes or another predisposition is overeating, the pancreas can’t keep up with the high demand of food and can’t use insulin effectively. In this way, eating too much (of any food) can increase risk of type 2 diabetes.

3. Myth: Only overweight and unhealthy people have diabetes.

Fact: Most people with type 1 diabetes are a healthy weight. When children and young adults are first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, they may actually be underweight because they can’t take up the energy they need without enough insulin.

Although obesity is one risk factor for type 2 diabetes, genetics, ethnicity, age, and lifestyle factors also play a role. In fact, most people who are overweight never develop type 2 diabetes, and many people with type 2 diabetes are at a healthy weight or only moderately overweight. A family history of diabetes and personal history of gestational diabetes can increase risk of type 2 diabetes. Age (forty-five and older), ethnicity (African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans), and physical inactivity can also increase risk. Experts recommend people with one or more risk factors have their blood glucose levels checked every three years.

4. Myth: Diabetes is like an allergy to sugar. If you avoid it, you’re diabetes will be under control.

Fact: Everybody needs carbohydrates in their diet for energy, even people with diabetes. Simple carbohydrates, like sugar, may actually be crucial when people with diabetes have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Low blood glucose can cause weakness, irritability, and severe cases can cause seizures. High blood glucose can make people nauseous and drowsy, and untreated cases can lead to a coma. The key to managing diabetes is not to avoid sugar, but to keep blood sugar levels in a safe range.

Although lifestyle factors and medication can reverse type 2 diabetes in the early stages, there is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes. For people with type 1 diabetes, checking blood glucose levels, calculating carbohydrates, and adjusting insulin is a full-time job. Careful management can prevent complications related to diabetes later in life, such as kidney disease, heart disease, and neuropathy.

5. Myth: You have to follow a special diet if you have diabetes.

Fact: There’s no reason that people with diabetes need to follow a restricted diet. Like everyone else, people with diabetes can benefit from a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, and low in saturated and trans fats. Whether you have diabetes or not, sweets and desserts can be enjoyed in moderation.

Those with type 2 diabetes may have to pay closer attention to portion sizes of starchy foods to keep carbohydrates consistent throughout the day. Aiming for 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for each meal is usually a good start. Those with type 1 diabetes typically have more flexibility because they can adjust their insulin depending on the amount of carbohydrates they eat.

6. Myth: Playing sports and exercising can be dangerous if you have diabetes.

Fact: Gary Hall, an Olympic swimmer, and Jackie Robinson, a former baseball star, are two of many athletes who lived with type 1 diabetes. Need I say more? Exercise is just as important for people with diabetes as it is for anyone else. For people with type 2 diabetes, exercise may have extra benefits: improving blood sugar control, aiding in weight loss, and lowering blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

As long as those with diabetes pay attention to how they feel and keep an eye on their blood sugar levels during exercise, there is no need to feel limited. Staying hydrated, eating beforehand, and keeping snacks close-by can help people with diabetes stay safe during exercise. The sky is the limit! While diabetes is a serious and complicated disease that affects all aspects of life, it should never limit or discourage anyone from reaching his or her goals.

Katelyn Castro is a first-year student in the DI/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. She is passionate about teaching nutrition to kids and has spent the past two summers working with kids with type 1 diabetes at the Barton Center.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

10 comments on “Debunking 6 Myths About Diabetes

  1. # 4 should read “NOBODY _needs_ carbohydrates in their diet for for energy”. Low carbs (below 50 g/day) is better for T2 (very low – 0 – 20 g/day is better) for eventually leading to reversal of the symptoms of T2 and lessening/eliminating the need for insulin or other diabesity-related medications. (TESTIFY!).
    #5 Eating 45-60 g carbs/meal which only serves to REQUIRE INSULIN to lower BG levels is tantamount to malpractice. This advice seems to be coming from drug company and food industry lobbyists than from reputable scientific sources. As a T2 for 20 years, no dietician’s or nutritionist’s advise has brought any improvement to my health, which had only steadily worsened until starting a low carb diet (<30 g carbs/day) along with intermittent fasting. Since starting this regime several months ago, I've lost over 40 lbs, no longer take any metformin or insulin, BG is stabilized, and have energy to burn. If I followed your advice, I'd be still over 300 lbs (and climbing), unable to walk without discomfort past one city block, and worse. I recommend you look up a modern science dietician like Caryn Zinn (NZ) and read some of her stuff. Sincerely, rB

    • Razul DeRosa

      @roansart – its important to keep in mind when reading this type of information it must be interpreted with an epidemiological mind set. Meaning this is more population based data in that it explains the effects on a population level. Your story, though valid remains an individualistic case report. If you can provide information with large scale observational data I would be interested to read it. But to suggest blanket statements such as “nobody need carbohydrate…” is misleading and requires more information.

  2. Hi there
    I’m a family doctor in the UK.
    Like Tim Noakes you will in time come to see the truth and misinformation in what you have written.
    For instance we all need glucose in our blood- but no one needs to eat sugars or starches in food to create that glucose as you will have learnt. Gluconeogenesis and all that.
    Check out my free website. http://www.healthylivingsite.me
    And send me a message in due course.
    You write well and we need good writers. You need to look at where you have been misled and duped. I was too.
    Best wishes

  3. John Wright

    Hi Katelyn Welcome to the world of metabolic nutrition.
    In order to help you with your debunking can I suggest you consider reading Dr Joseph Kraft, and the Canadian Endocrinologist Jason Fung, or Sarah Hallberg.
    Out of curiosity, how is Fat Insulinogenic?

  4. I don’t agree with some of your suggestions. I would recommend you also look at the info from Dr. Jason Fung at https://intensivedietarymanagement.com

  5. Before you post more rubbish, such as this, I would suggest you gain some education from Dr. Richard K. Bernstein. He is the oldest living T1 diabetic, who promotes a low carb lifestyle for both T1 and T2 diabetics to control their conditions. He doesn’t have to worry about hypos, because avoiding sugar and other carbohydrates (i.e. grains, potatoes, rice, starch) in the diet helps diabetics to maintain stable blood glucose levels, thus avoiding highs and lows. May I suggest you look into Typeonegrit on social media to view the blood glucose monitors of those that follow Dr. Bernstein’s recommendations. Stable levels in the 70s, 80s and 90s. No highs or lows.

  6. Adele Hite, MPH RD

    Katelyn, I am an RD with an MPH in Nutrition. While you’ve made some valid points in this post, I would caution you about simply replicating the party line regarding carbohydrates and diabetes. Educate yourself–it isn’t going to happen in your classes–about the history of carbohydrate restriction in diabetes (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16489278) and about the current science (http://www.nutritionjrnl.com/article/S0899-9007(14)00332-3/abstract). Check out some of the information on parents helping their kids manage type 1 diabetes with low-carb diets and minimal amounts of insulin (https://www.facebook.com/Type1Grit/?fref=ts; https://www.facebook.com/Low-carb-experiences-with-a-Type-1-kid-567536589987824/?fref=nf). The politics of dietary recommendations, nutrition research, and public health advocacy groups like the American Diabetes Association (which gets a significant amount of sponsorship from insulin manufacturers http://www.diabetes.org/about-us/corporate-support/our-corporate-supporters.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/) is too complicated to get into here, but please understand that these are not simply neutral, objective “facts” about food and disease that you are reporting. Until you allow yourself a much more extensive investigation into and wider perspective on the nuances of these issues, you are not “debunking” myths about diabetes, but perpetuating them. Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I’m pretty easy to find on the interwebz.

  7. Type 1 and 2 need to eat lower/low carb including testing sugars more often.
    No to most fruit. I find raspberries and blue berries fine though ie hardly any sugar rise but still need .5 to 1 unit fast acting to eat these fruits.
    ‘Balanced diet’ means nothing except the term sells produce.
    Grains? No. You can make breads and cakes using almond flour, flax seed flour and coconut flour. Difference is: 6g carb per 100g for those flours compared to 80g per 100g for wheat flour. Even injecting for wheat flour produce has type 1 and type 2 sugars swinging high to low. Really.
    Try with a type 1 friend. Test blood before eating a wheat sandwich and inject usual insulin. Then after a few bites, test sugar again. Then a few bites more and test sugar again. Sugars will go up past 6.5 mmol/L. If Type 1 and 2 have been advised to test before eating and then 1-2 hours after eating, the blood sugar rise will usually be unnoticed. My sugar eating a sandwich will creep up to around 12 mmol/L at least, this is of course having injected my usual fast acting insulin and having had my slow acting insulin on board.
    I choose the lower carb meal option.

    It is not being deprived of healthy and delicious good food by eating lower/low carb foods. Want chocolate? Sure, pick the 85% plain chocolate not the usual chocolate confectionary loaded with sugar.
    Eating low/lower carb keeps sugars where our bodies want it to be. Our bodies don’t say
    “Oh, you have diabetes, well it’s fine then if your sugars are not in the same range as a non diabetic, your cells won’t get damaged from higher blood sugars.”
    Wrong. Sorry, and call it a treat eating that piece of cake you have once a week if you want, but your body and cells will notice this and cells will be damaged when outside of normal non diabetic range.
    As a suggestion try

    http://www.againstallgrains.com recipes

    The author has a different reason to eat her no grain way but many of her recipes are lower/low carb. And really, flippin’ delicious too.

    Please read
    Diabetes Solution
    A Complete Guide To Achieving Normal Blood Sugars
    by Dr Richard K. Bernstein MD

    Dr Bernstein has had Type 1 since 1946, is so far, almost 80 years of age, working at his clinic in NY, USA

    I have had type 1 many years and Dr Bernstein is the only doctor that has been of help to me since my partner and I found his book in 2008.
    Blood sugars normalised.

  8. Mike Jenkins

    This is very old thinking and causes needless suffering in many who get this sort of misinformation. See Dr. Bernstein’s “Diabetes Solution” for the straight dope. Or check out:
    “Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: Critical review and evidence base”, Feinman, Richard D. et al.
    Nutrition , Volume 31 , Issue 1 , 1 – 13

    Seriously, I’d ask for my tuition money back.

  9. Wow, is that not the summary of the current crisis in the management of diabetes or what? Please, you need to read a human physiology text and stay away from bogus stuck in the mud organizations like the ADA and AND.

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