5 Things You Should Know About Diabetes
Diabetes affects more than 29 million people in the U.S., so chances are, this disease impacts your aunt, co-worker, friend, neighbor or someone else you know. Despite its prevalence, there are probably a few surprising things you don’t know about diabetes.
Fact No. 1: Diabetes is not caused by eating sugar.
A diet full of soda and sugary foods such as cereal, processed food and snacks puts you at risk for many things, but eating too much sugar is not the main culprit for diabetes. It’s much more complicated.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that develops usually at a young age when your pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that brings glucose into your body’s cells to be used as energy, needed to regulate glucose from the food you eat. There’s little you can do to prevent Type 1 diabetes (although family history plays a part).
To help manage Type 1 diabetes, you will likely require:
- Daily insulin shots
- Careful carbohydrate counting
- Planning physical activity and meals to regulate your blood glucose levels
Type 2 diabetes, the most common form, occurs when the pancreas is still producing insulin, but over time, it isn’t able to make enough to maintain normal blood glucose levels, or the body is not responsive to the amount of insulin it produces (insulin resistance). Obesity, being overweight and family history are the primary risk factors.
Type 2 diabetes may be managed with one or more of the following:
- Oral medications and insulin
- Careful monitoring of diet
Very often, people are first diagnosed with “prediabetes” as a red flag they are at high risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.
Fact No. 2: People with diabetes can enjoy sweets.
Sweets and desserts are not off limits, but enjoying a piece of birthday cake requires some planning. Melissa Sujak, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian specializing in diabetes at Northwestern Medicine, says, “Many patients are afraid they can never eat sugar, cake or other taboo foods. I often tell patients that we are looking for progress, not perfection.” Instead, Sujak suggests an 80/20 rule: Strive to build a diet with 80% healthy choices. “If you are very mindful, you can make those exceptions.”
Cookies and other sweets contain carbohydrates that increase your blood glucose levels. Counting carbohydrates every time you eat is a vital part of maintaining normal blood glucose levels. It helps determine how much insulin to take, too.
When planned as part of a meal, small amounts of sugar can be substituted for other carbs, like skipping an extra piece of bread or eating half a cup of pasta, rice or potatoes. Swapping out real sugar with sweeteners or choosing “sugar-free” food does not mean food is carbohydrate-free; they may still contain sugar alcohol, which can increase blood glucose levels and have a laxative effect. Understanding food labels is an important tool for meal planning, says Sujak.
Cocktails, wine and beer also rock the carb counter. These beverages can be enjoyed in moderation but need to be accounted for in meal planning, as alcohol can raise and lower blood sugar levels. Sujak suggests talking to your diabetes educator for guidance and advice.
Fact No. 3: Having gestational diabetes does not mean your baby will have diabetes.
About 9% of pregnant women will become insulin resistant during pregnancy and develop gestational diabetes. If you’ve never had diabetes before, you can still develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy because even though your pancreas is working overtime to produce insulin, it may not be enough.
It’s not your fault, or your baby’s fault, if you’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes. And, it doesn’t mean your baby will have diabetes. However, it is important to work with your obstetrician to manage your condition; otherwise, it can cause your baby’s pancreas to make extra insulin, which is stored as “fat.” This can put your baby at risk for large birth weight, low blood glucose and breathing problems, as well as obesity and Type 2 diabetes later in life. In most cases, this type of diabetes goes away when the pregnancy ends.
Fact No. 4: Diabetes causes a lot of emotions.
It’s common for people with diabetes to feel angry, depressed or anxious. After all, it can be stressful to test your blood glucose several times a day, monitor what you eat, and give yourself insulin shots or take medication every single day. It’s easy to feel different and deny diabetes exists, and it’s easy to feel out of control, especially if your blood glucose level isn’t where you’d like it to be. If you see some despair in someone who has diabetes, remember these are natural emotions that can become barriers to good self-care, so be mindful by learning as much as you can so you are able to offer support and encouragement.
Additionally, remember that diabetes is a progressive condition. “It changes over time. Even if you’re doing everything perfectly, it can change or require medication adjustments. That might cause people to feel guilty,” says Sujak.
Fact No. 5: It takes time to adjust to having diabetes.
If you or someone you love has just been diagnosed with diabetes, realize that adjustment takes time. After all, it takes a lot of finger pricking, blood testing, shot giving and self-monitoring to reach and maintain normal blood sugar levels. And, it takes patience to fine-tune your blood glucose. Many factors affect your blood glucose level, including what you eat, how much you eat, how much you exercise, what time you take your medications or insulin, stress and sickness.
Left untreated, diabetes can lead to long-term complications, such as kidney failure, heart disease, blindness and neuropathy. So it’s important to learn to manage it, but remember to take it one step at a time. “From making small adjustments with food choices to physical activity, every little change is beneficial,” says Sujak.