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5 Surprising Facts About Diabetes

What You Should Know About Diabetes

Diabetes affects more than 29 million people in the U.S., so chances are good that it affects your parent, sibling, child, co-worker, friend, neighbor or someone else you know. Despite the prevalence of diabetes, there are probably a few surprising facts you don’t know.

Fact No. 1: Diabetes is not caused just by eating too much sugar.

A diet full of soda, sugary foods and processed foods does increase your risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other diseases, but eating too much sugar is not the main cause of diabetes. The link between sugary foods and diabetes is not as simple as you might think.

Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, occurs when your body is not responsive to the amount of insulin it produces. Over time, your body isn’t able to make enough insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels. The main risk factors for this type of diabetes are being obese or overweight, or having a family history of diabetes. However, eating large amounts of sugar indirectly raises your diabetes risk by leading to weight gain and increased body fat.

Type 2 diabetes is typically managed with one or more of these methods:

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Oral medications, injectable medications and/or insulin

Very often, people are first diagnosed with “prediabetes.” This means they are at high risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that usually develops in children or teenagers. The pancreas can't make insulin, and this lack of insulin means glucose stays in the blood and can't get into the body's cells where it is needed for energy. A family history of diabetes can play a role in Type 1 diabetes development. Although people with Type 1 diabetes still need to be careful about how much sugar they eat, sugar does not cause Type 1 diabetes.

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

Fact No. 2: People with diabetes can enjoy sweets.

Sweets and desserts are not off limits, but enjoying a piece of birthday cake may require some planning. Northwestern Medicine Endocrinologist Jyothi Gogineni, MD, says, “It’s a myth that people with diabetes can never eat sugar, but eating foods with sugar does involve being mindful and planning your meals.”

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 people with diabetes determine how much insulin to take, too.

When planned as part of a meal, a small amount of a high-sugar food can be substituted for other carbohydrates, such as skipping an extra piece of bread or eating less pasta, rice or potatoes. It's also important to remember that swapping out real sugar with sweeteners or choosing “sugar-free” foods does not mean a food is carbohydrate free. These foods may contain sugar alcohols, which can increase your blood glucose levels and also have a laxative effect. Understanding food labels is an important tool for carbohydrate counting and meal planning, notes Dr. Gogineni.

Cocktails, wine and beer can also rock the carb counter. These beverages can be enjoyed in moderation but need to be accounted for in meal planning because alcohol can raise or lower your blood sugar levels. Dr. Gogineni suggests talking to your diabetes educator or physician 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 your pregnancy. 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, endocrinologist, or diabetes educator to manage your diabetes. High blood sugar can cause your baby’s pancreas to produce extra insulin. This may put your baby at risk for high birth weight, low blood glucose and breathing problems, as well as obesity and Type 2 diabetes later in life. For most people, this type of diabetes goes away when the pregnancy ends.

Fact No. 4: Diabetes can cause 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 the 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. Try and talk honestly and openly about how you feel with those around you.

If you see someone with diabetes experiencing any of these emotions, remember these are natural emotions that can become barriers to good self-care. 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. “Managing diabetes is a livelong endeavor that may require changes in medication or lifestyle,” says Dr. Gogineni. “Your care team will partner with you along the way to help you control the disease through all of the changes.”

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 glucose levels over time. It also takes patience. Many factors come into play, 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. So, it’s important to learn to manage your diabetes but remember to take it one step at a time. “Small lifestyle adjustments can really make a big difference,” says Dr. Gogineni.

Caring for Diabetes