Diabetes myths sure have been in the news lately. A heated debate, which took place primarily via social media, peaked last week and is still being discussed among our diabetes community and beyond. And for good reason. It’s clear that we have a lot of educating yet to do about diabetes.
Diabetes, in its many forms, is a complex disease. It is a topic that doesn’t fit easily into 140 characters, try as we might sometimes.
There are many myths that make it difficult for people to understand the hard facts about diabetes—such as, it is a serious and potentially deadly disease affecting nearly 30 million Americans. Jokes or shaming to supposedly spread awareness, or perpetuating ignorant stereotypes, compound the hurt.
Diabetes threatens those we love. It is lived—and battled—every day by real people and families. It is treated by knowledgeable and caring doctors, nurses, diabetes educators and other health care professionals. Scientific researchers dedicate their careers to improving diabetes treatments and finding a cure.
We join the diverse diabetes community in setting the record straight. Let’s start with some fundamental fact-checking.
Type 1 diabetes is an unpreventable, life-threatening autoimmune disease for which there currently is no cure. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin. It was formerly called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes. Type 1 is caused by genetics and unknown environmental factors that trigger its onset. Just to survive, people with type 1 must take multiple injections of insulin daily or continually infuse insulin with a pump. Multiple blood glucose checks and healthful eating and regular physical activity are also part of everyday treatment.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, accounting for about 95 percent of cases. In type 2 diabetes, the body does not use insulin properly, called insulin resistance, and may not make enough insulin. Type 2 is influenced by genetics, family history, age and inactivity. Being overweight is a major risk factor for developing type 2, but it’s important to remember that most overweight people never develop type 2, and many people with it are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight. Type 2 is treated with healthy eating, physical activity, oral medications and sometimes insulin or other injectables. There is no cure for type 2 either, though it can often be prevented or delayed through lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise and healthful eating.
Diabetes is NOT directly caused by eating too much sugar. Research has shown that drinking sugary drinks is linked to type 2 diabetes, but this is far from a cause-and-effect, and it is not the only factor. A diet high in excess calories from any source contributes to weight gain, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Sugar-sweetened beverages are a major source of those extra, empty calories. The American Diabetes Association specifically recommends that people avoid drinking sugar-sweetened beverages to help prevent type 2 diabetes. These beverages include regular soda, sweet tea and fruit drinks.
By the way, it’s also a common myth that people with diabetes cannot eat sweets. If they choose to, people with diabetes can eat sweets in moderation as part of a healthy meal plan or combined with exercise—just as people without diabetes can. And there are even times when sugar is a must: If your blood glucose level drops too low, food and drink containing rapidly absorbed carbohydrate is essential for treating dangerous hypoglycemia.
We need a constructive national dialogue about the rise of diabetes and its impact on our country. We face devastating diseases that affect millions of people young and old and of all races, shapes and sizes. Diabetes dictates how they organize their day, what they eat at every meal, how they choose to be physically active and even how they spend their money. Together diabetes and prediabetes cost our country $322 billion a year. This impact can also be measured in blindness, amputation, kidney failure, stroke, heart attack and other complications. We believe that resources spent discussing diabetes would be better on raising awareness about all types of diabetes and funding and conducting research to help us uncover new answers and to ultimately find a cure.
In the face of the hard facts and statistics, diabetes is best fought with knowledge and compassion. There is no “good” type of diabetes. There is no “bad” person with diabetes. The diabetes community we know and love sticks together, stands up for each other, and comes together to educate and advocate through highs and lows.
Those who live with diabetes, and their caregivers, are our heroes and our inspiration. They are the reason we work every day to stop diabetes through awareness, education, research and advocacy.
We will continue this fight, united, until there is a cure.
Derek Rapp, President and CEO, JDRF
Kevin L. Hagan, CEO, American Diabetes Association