Medical myths: All about diabetes
Written by Tim Newman on November 16, 2020 — Fact checked by Jessica Beake, Ph.D.
Globally, diabetes is becoming increasingly prevalent, as are the myths and misconceptions that surround it. Here, we discuss 11 of these repeated untruths.
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Currently, around 1 in 10 people in the United States have diabetes. Globally, more than 422 million people are living with the disease.
Although diabetes is a familiar word, symptoms vary, and the biological mechanisms involved are complex. Because it is both common and complicated, half-truths abound.
Unfortunately, some of the myths we cover in this article increase the stigma attached to diabetes. For this reason alone, it is essential to challenge these falsehoods.
Firstly, we will briefly explain what diabetes is and highlight the differences between the three most common forms of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the pancreas cells that create insulin. It tends to occur earlier in life than type 2 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin, does not respond well to insulin, or both.
At least 90% of people with diabetes in the U.S. have type 2.
Gestational diabetes, as the name suggests, occurs during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the body needs more insulin. Gestational diabetes occurs when the body cannot meet these new requirements.
Although gestational diabetes usually goes away after birth, there is a risk of developing it again during future pregnancies and developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
1. Eating sugar causes diabetes
Eating sugar does not directly cause diabetes. However, consuming a sugary diet can lead to overweight and obesity, which are risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
This is a common myth, perhaps understandably — blood sugar levels play an essential role in diabetes. Sugar itself, though, is not a causal factor.
As ever, the story is complex: there does appear to be a link between regularly drinking soda and risk for type 2 diabetes.
One large study published in 2013 found that, even after controlling for energy intake and body mass index (BMI), drinking soda has links with an increased risk of developing the disease. The study did not find this association in relation to other drinks, such as artificially-sweetened beverages and fruit juices.
Scientists still do not understand why some people develop type 1 diabetes, and others do not. However, nutrition is not a risk factor.
2. Diabetes is not serious
Perhaps because diabetes is so common, some people believe that it is not a serious disease. This is incorrect. There is no cure for diabetes, and there are a host of complications that can occur if a person does not manage the condition well.
Complications include cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney damage, blindness, skin conditions, and hearing impairment.
In 2018, diabetes was the underlying cause of 84,946 deaths in the U.S. The World Health Organization estimate that diabetes caused the death of 1.6 million people in 2016.
3. Diabetes only affects people with obesity
Overweight and obesity are risk factors for type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes, but the condition can occur in people of any weight. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Diabetes Statistic Report, 2020, 11% of people with type 2 diabetes in the U.S. are neither overweight nor obese.
Type 1 diabetes has no associations with body weight.
4. Obesity always leads to diabetes
Although obesity increases the risk of diabetes, it does not inevitably lead to the disease. According to the CDC, an estimated 39.8% of adults in the U.S. have obesity, but 13% have diabetes.
5. People with diabetes cannot eat sugar
People with diabetes certainly do need to manage their diets carefully: monitoring carbohydrate intake is important. However, they can still incorporate treats.
The American Diabetes Association explain:
“The key to sweets is to have a very small portion and save them for special occasions, so you focus your meals on healthier foods.”
Individuals with diabetes need to carefully plan what and when they will eat to ensure that their blood sugar levels remain balanced.
A related myth is that people with diabetes need to eat special “diabetes-friendly” foods. These products are often more expensive, and some can still raise glucose levels.