More than 4 million people in the UK have diabetes, but do we actually know what the condition is or why it developed?
We asked Pav Kalsi, a senior clinical adviser at Diabetes UK, to clear up a few of the most common myths about the disease.
1. Diabetes is caused by an unhealthy diet
We’re often told that binging on burgers and chips will cause diabetes, but this statement completely ignores the difference between Type 1 and Type 2. This is probably because 90% of diabetes sufferers have Type 2, which is linked to being overweight, leading a sedentary lifestyle and eating an unhealthy diet.
However, Type 1 has nothing to do with these factors. “Type 1 diabetes isn’t linked to diet,” explains Pav. “No one knows what exactly causes it but it’s not to do with being overweight. It usually affects children or young adults, starting suddenly and getting worse very quickly.”
She adds: “Too often Type 1 diabetes, which is not linked to lifestyle, is mistaken for Type 2, which can be caused by being overweight, but it is important that the distinctions between the two types are clearly understood.”
2. All overweight people will develop diabetes
Not all overweight people are going to get diabetes – although the majority of people with Type 2 diabetes do have an unhealthily high BMI. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reports that worldwide 80% of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese at the time of diagnosis.
However, Pav says: “Being overweight or obese can significantly increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes but it is not guaranteed that everyone who is overweight will develop it.”
You’re also at higher risk if you are African-Caribbean, Black African, Chinese or South Asian, aged over 40 years of age (or over 25 if you are South Asian) or if you have a relative with the disease. You can check your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes here.
3. Anyone who has diabetes will know that they have it
Again, this depends on the type of diabetes.
“It is hard to ignore the signs of Type 1 diabetes because symptoms can often appear quite quickly,” says Pav, adding that “leaving it untreated can lead to serious health problems, including diabetic ketoacidosis, which can result in a potentially fatal coma”.
“The symptoms include going to the toilet a lot, bed wetting by a previously dry child or heavier nappies in babies, being really thirsty and not being able to quench the thirst, feeling more tired than usual and sudden weight loss or looking thinner than usual.”
However Type 2 diabetes can be easier to miss as the symptoms develop slowly, especially in the early stages. This is problematic, as some people don’t get diagnosed until they have suffered from the disease for several years, so ask your doctor if you have any concerns. According to Diabetes UK, there are currently 590,000 people in the UK who have Type 2 diabetes and don’t yet know it.
4. People with diabetes can only eat really small portions of stodgy foods like pasta, or should avoid them completely
Nope! According to Pav, the best way to manage diabetes is to eat a balanced diet, consisting of fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrate foods (such as pasta), non-dairy sources of protein and dairy.
“All people, including people with diabetes, should include some starchy carbohydrates in their diet,” explains Pav. “The amount of carbs you need depends on a number of factors – including how physically active you are, your weight and nutritional goals.”
She continues: “Since the amount of carbohydrates you eat has an effect on your blood glucose levels and your weight, it’s good to be aware of your portion sizes.”
5. Diabetes sufferers have to snack constantly instead of eating large meals
Wrong again. People with diabetes do not have set meal plans, but they are advised to spread their meals out over the day.
So what does our clinical adviser suggest diabetes sufferers do? “Avoid skipping meals and space your breakfast, lunch and evening meal out over the day,” she says. “This will help control your appetite and blood glucose levels – especially if you are on twice-daily insulin. Working a long shift? Take a healthy packed lunch and healthy snacks with you.
“It is recommended that people who take medication for their diabetes – which includes all people with Type 1 – always have access to snacks for when their blood sugar level drops, as well as to regulate their blood sugar between meals.”
However, that is not the case for people with Type 2 diabetes. “People with Type 2 diabetes who aren’t taking medication don’t need extra snacks,” Pav explains, “and if they are also overweight they need to plan carefully what snacks they eat outside of regular mealtimes.”
6. If you have diabetes, your immune system is weaker and you’ll get colds a lot
Pav says: “If you have diabetes, your immune system is not weaker compared to someone without diabetes.
“However, as the body responds to illness and infection by increasing blood glucose levels, day-to-day blood glucose management becomes more complicated. All people with diabetes should get the flu vaccine, regardless of type, as they are more at risk of potentially serious flu complications, such as pneumonia.”
7. Everybody with diabetes has to take insulin
Not EVERYBODY who has diabetes needs insulin to stay alive, although the condition is progressive and many people eventually may need it.
Everyone who has Type 1 does need to take it as their pancreas doesn’t produce any of the hormone. Insulin can either be injected once a day or administered through a pump to release the hormone in a steady flow throughout the day.
8. If you’re a diabetic, you can’t drink any alcohol
There is no need for diabetics to go teetotal, but drinking alcohol does make hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels) more likely to occur, especially if diabetes is treated with insulin or certain tablets.
Pav says: “To reduce the chance of a hypo, it is important not to drink alcohol on an empty stomach. A hypo can be confused with drunkenness when there is the smell of alcohol on your breath, so it is really important to tell people you are with that you have diabetes and what help you might need if you have a hypo. Also, make sure you carry some ID to let others know you have diabetes, such as an ID card, medical necklace or bracelet.
“If you drink more than a few units during an evening, you will have an increased risk of hypos all night and into the next day too. Always snack on a starchy snack, such as cereal or toast, before bed to minimise this risk.”
9. You can’t do anything to prevent developing diabetes
This varies between the two different types. As Type 1 is not linked to lifestyle, it cannot be prevented as it develops when the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas have been destroyed. Pav explains: “No one knows for certain why these cells have been damaged, but the most likely cause is the body having an abnormal reaction to the cells. This may be triggered by a viral or other infection.”
However, being overweight can put you at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, so there are some things people can do to prevent or delay the onset. Pav says: “Maintaining a healthy weight by doing regular physical activity and eating a healthy balanced diet is extremely important to reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes.”