20 Diabetes Myths That Could Be Sabotaging Your Health
Misconceptions about diabetes risk factors, symptoms, healthy foods, and more could affect how diabetes patients take care of themselves.
Myth: Eating sugar causes diabetes
Fact: Eating sugar doesn’t cause diabetes in the same smoking-gun way that cigarettes cause cancer, notes Prevention, but sugar seems to play an indirect role, and it’s just plain common sense to limit your intake. For one thing, eating too much sugar can lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, says David G. Marrero, PhD, president of Health Care & Education at the American Diabetes Association. But beyond that association, recent research suggests that sugary drinks can increase diabetes risk, even after accounting for weight. A 2015 BMJ study found that consuming one sugar-sweetened drink a day raises type 2 diabetes risk by 18 percent. And a JAMA study found that the risk of diabetes in women almost doubled when they went from drinking from 1 or fewer sugary drinks a week to 1 or more per day over a four-year period. These rapidly absorbed sugars may damage cells in the pancreas that secrete insulin, according to Prevention. Sugar is hidden in countless packaged foods, so you’re probably consuming more than you think. Look at nutrition labels and avoid highly processed foods. The World Health Organization recommends sticking to no more than six teaspoons (or 24 grams) a day for the average adult. Start these healthy habits to help prevent diabetes.
Myth: Thin people don’t get type 2 diabetes
Fact: While some 85 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, that means 15 percent of people with diabetes are at a healthy weight, according to a recent article in Harvard Health Publications. In fact, a 2012 study in JAMA found that normal-weight people with type 2 diabetes have double the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes than overweight people with diabetes. Genes can play a role, as can having an excess of visceral fat, or fat that isn’t jiggly and pinch-able, but rather clings to your abdominal organs, where it affects the production of inflammatory compounds that damage your liver and pancreas and could lower your insulin sensitivity, putting you at risk of type 2 diabetes, molecular imaging expert Jimmy Bell, MD, told Women’s Health magazine.
Regardless of weight, if you are age 45 or older get your blood sugar levels checked every three years, especially if you have risk factors like being sedentary; having a family history of diabetes or personal history of gestational diabetes; heart disease; high blood pressure; and/or high cholesterol.
Myth: Exercise is dangerous for people with diabetes
Fact: This couldn’t be further from the truth: Numerous studies have shown that regular physical activity actually helps lower blood sugar levels and can improve diabetes management. The important thing is to get your doctor’s clearance to start exercising (particularly if you’ve been inactive) and talk to your doc or a diabetes educator about how/when to test your blood sugar as part of your workout routine. If you take medication or insulin that can cause low blood sugar, says the Mayo Clinic, “test your blood sugar 30 minutes before exercising and approximately every 30 minutes during exercise. This will help you determine if your blood sugar level is stable, rising, or falling and if it’s safe to keep exercising.” It’s also a good idea keep a snack on hand in case you need to bring your blood sugar back up post-workout. If you feel weak or shaky, your body is telling you to take a break or stop. These science-backed strategies can help to reverse diabetes.
Myth: Diabetes has no symptoms; only my doctor can detect it
Fact: Diabetes does have a number of early warning signs, but the problem is that they’re often subtle enough to overlook or ignore. No wonder 25 percent of people with diabetes don’t even know they have it. Telltale signs: feeling dehydrated even when you’ve been drinking, drinking more fluids than usual, frequent trips to the bathroom, feeling tired and hungry all the time, or losing weight without changes to diet or lifestyle. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. Diabetes is easily and definitively diagnosed with a blood test.
Myth: You shouldn’t get pregnant if you have diabetes
Fact: “People are worried about the risk to themselves and their child, or worry that they can’t become pregnant at all, particularly in those with type 1; but that’s just not true anymore,” says Marrero. “This myth stems from a time when diabetes was poorly controlled and understood.” There’s still a risk of complications, such as preterm birth, if you aren’t vigilant in controlling your blood sugar levels, but plenty of people become pregnant and have normal pregnancies with proper monitoring, he says. For more information on having a health pregnancy with diabetes, check out the American Diabetes Association’s resource guide.
Myth: You’ll always be able to tell if your blood sugar levels are too low or too high
Fact: Initial signs of elevated blood sugar are often so mild that they’re easily overlooked. This is why it’s important to regularly test and track blood sugar levels. Not only can this alert you to a dip or spike even before your body sends you signals, it also helps you learn how diet, exercise, stress, and illness affect your levels. When you become hypoglycemic (blood sugar is too low), you may experience sweating or shakiness. But long-term diabetics often develop something called “hypoglycemia unawareness,” which means they lose the ability to feel these symptoms as time goes on, says Deena Adimoolam, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Endocrinology, Obesity & Metabolism at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Follow your doctor’s recommendation for how often to check blood sugar levels. Call 911 immediately if you have blurred vision, feel confused or sleepy, or experience vomiting. And become familiar with these silent diabetes complications.
Myth: Diabetics have to follow a strict, no-sugar diet
Fact: Dessert is not off the table, either for type 1 or type 2 diabetics. With type 2 diabetes, the key is moderation; keep sweets a small portion of your overall diet and fill the rest with fiber-packed whole grains, veggies, and lean protein. Type 1 diabetes is a little trickier, because you’ll have to learn how to adjust your next insulin dose to compensate for sugary carbs. “It just takes a little bit of trial and error to figure out the right insulin dose, but it’s very manageable and learnable,” says Marrero, who himself has type 1 diabetes. “Using a continuous glucose monitor that will show you when your levels are changing is a great option.”
Myth: If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to catch a cold
Fact: You’re no likelier than anyone else to pick up a cold, the flu, or any other illness if you have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. However, illnesses can make diabetes more difficult to control; for instance, people will diabetes are three times more likely to be hospitalized from the flu than those without the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get a flu shot and follow the CDC’s tips for keeping yourself healthy during flu season. Here’s what diabetes doctors do every day to keep their own blood sugar under control.
Myth: There is no cure for Type 2 diabetes
This is false-ish, says Eduardo Sanchez, MD, the Chief Medical Officer for Prevention and Chief of the Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation for the American Heart Association in Dallas. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form of the disease and is most closely linked to obesity. For people who are obese, some types of gastric bypass surgery can almost completely clear up symptoms. So can intermittent fasting. “The idea of a cure is elusive, but it is not outside of our grasp,” he says. “We are not optimizing our efforts to prevent diabetes and there is a tremendous opportunity for hope because we can dramatically improve quality of life and enhance the length of life of people with diabetes through lifestyle changes and medication.” Meet the doctor who is beating diabetes one patient at a time.
Myth: There is no way to prevent it
Prediabetes is a wake-up call that you are at risk for developing diabetes. It occurs when your blood sugar or glucose is higher than it should be, but not quite at diabetes level—yet. “There is a body of evidence that says adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Sanchez says. Approximately one of three US adults have prediabetes, but 90 percent of them don’t know it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. A simple blood test can tell if you have prediabetes and get you on the path to prevention. These are the best and worst foods to turn the table on prediabetes.
Myth: All people with diabetes should follow the same diet
There is no one-size-fits-all diet for people with diabetes in the same way that there is no single diet for people without diabetes, Dr. Sanchez says. There are many styles of eating that can help manage diabetes, from a Mediterranean-style diet that is rich in vegetables, healthy fats, some grains, and lean proteins to the keto diet, which is low in carbs, moderate in protein, and high in fat. Learn what the 2-day diet is and how can it help manage diabetes.
Myth: If you have diabetes, you will develop heart disease
Hopefully not, Dr. Sanchez says, “We know that heart disease is most likely to shorten the life of someone with diabetes, but we also know what to do to lower this risk and change this trajectory,” he says. This includes adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle and making sure blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and glucose levels remain at healthy levels. To get more people on board with these life-saving changes, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association joined forces for a partnership to raise awareness about the increased risk for cardiovascular disease among those living with type 2 diabetes—it’s called the Know Diabetes by Heart initiative. This silent symptom causes half of all heart attacks—and it has nothing to do with cholesterol.
Myth: You will lose a limb
Just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean that you will lose a limb, says Maria Elena Rodriguez, RD, CDN, CDE, the Diabetes Program Manager at The Diabetes Alliance of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “Staying well informed about how to manage blood sugar and taking your medications as directed is the best way to prevent complications including the loss of a limb.” Get ahead of this risk by scheduling a complete foot exam at least annually and checking your feet daily. If you have diabetes, even a small cut can have devastating consequences because the disease causes nerve damage that takes away the feeling in your feet and reduces blood flow to the feet, making it harder to heal.
Myth: Every diabetic will need insulin therapy
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that allows your body to use sugar (glucose) for energy. When you have diabetes, your body either does not produce insulin (type 1) or your cells are resistant to its effects (type 2). As a result, sugar builds up in your blood and overflows into the urine. Over time, uncontrolled high blood sugar levels can cause serious health problems. “Not everyone with type 2 diabetes will end up needing insulin to control blood sugar,” says Rodriguez. Other medications and lifestyle changes such as weight loss and regular exercise may be enough to manage your diabetes.
Myth: You will go blind
Uncontrolled high blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the retina—the back wall of your eye. So-called diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss for people with diabetes, but it often has no symptoms. Losing your eyesight is not inevitable. Prevent blindness by getting a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year, Rodriguez says. This is on the list of the 10 life-saving things you must do if you have type 2 diabetes.
Myth: You will need dialysis
When you have diabetes, the blood vessels in your kidneys suffer damage, which means they’ll no longer effectively filter your blood. Left untreated, this can result in kidney failure and the need for dialysis to clean out waste from your bloodstream. Tight blood sugar control can lower risk of all diabetes complications, including kidney failure, Rodriguez explains.
Myth: You can’t even have a sip of alcohol
Moderate alcohol consumption can be okay if you have diabetes, Rodriguez says, but you need to take some precautions before happy hour. “Alcohol contains empty calories which convert to sugar in the body, and then metabolize as fat,” she says. Don’t overdo it, and make sure mixers are sugar-free—think diet soda or seltzer instead of sugary juices. Moderate alcohol consumption means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. (One drink equals a 12-oz. beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine, or 1½ oz. distilled spirits such as vodka). Don’t drink on an empty stomach either because your risk of low blood glucose increases when you haven’t eaten and after drinking. This combination raises your risk of a dangerous hypoglycemic event. Check out these 26 life-saving facts about glucose.
Myth: Gestational diabetes means you will develop diabetes
If you had gestational diabetes during your pregnancy, you are at greater risk for developing diabetes after you give birth—but this is not written in stone, Rodriquez says, “Your body may go back to regulating blood sugar properly after delivery,” she says. Make sure your doctor checks your blood sugar during your annual well-visits so that you can catch any changes early.
Myth: Diabetes means you can never run a marathon
Check out these 10 science-backed reasons to start working out if you have diabetes. Just as with any exercise, “if you are going to exercise for more than an hour, test your blood sugar before and after and make sure to carry snacks with you,” advises Rodriguez. If you’re not sure how much exercise you should be getting, ask your doctor or diabetes educator before signing up for a marathon.