9 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. Here, experts shed light on the truth behind some common diabetes myths.
Myth: Eating sugar causes diabetes
Fact: Eating sugar doesn’t cause diabetes in the same smoking-gun way that cigarettes cause cancer, notes Prevention.com, 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.com. 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 pinchable, but rather clings to your abdominal organs, where it affects the production of inflammatory compounds that affect 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, people age 45 and older get their 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 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 affects 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. Closely 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. (You need to know about 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 diabetes. 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. (This is what diabetes doctors do everyday to keep their own blood sugar under control.)