Being overweight or obese, lazy, acting as a ‘couch potato,’ over-eating, having a ‘sweet tooth,’ causing diabetes on yourself, or doing something wrong during pregnancy – these are common stigmas associated with diabetes. These stigmas are not only socially, mentally, and emotionally damaging to those with diabetes, but they are simply not true and can lead to misdiagnosis. Unfortunately, as diabetes is becoming more common, so are the myths. Diabetes is a highly misunderstood disease. Here, we debunk the top seven diabetes myths to help you or a friend manage diabetes, understand the risk, and break the stigma!
What is Diabetes?1
Diabetes is a long term, complicated disease where your body is unable to properly regulate the amount of glucose or sugar in the blood. Your pancreas normally releases insulin to stimulate your cells to uptake glucose. With type 1 diabetes, your body does not produce insulin. This is because your immune system kills the insulin-making cells since it thinks they are foreign invaders. With type 2 diabetes, the more common condition, your body does not make enough insulin or your cells are resistant to its effects. The disease that includes blood glucose levels above normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes is prediabetes. Gestational diabetes occurs when your blood sugars are higher than normal during pregnancy, but it increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Common Diabetes Myths
- Eating too much sugar causes diabetes2,3
Since diabetes is a condition associated with high blood glucose levels, it is no wonder that this is the top myth. However, diabetes is NOT caused by eating too much sugar. According to a large European study, drinking sugary drinks like soda, sweet tea, fruit juice, and energy drinks are linked to type 2 diabetes. These drinks are often high in calories and lack nutritional value, so it is best to drink more water to lower your chance. Eating too much sugar increases your risk of being overweight, obese, or developing type 2 diabetes, but it does not directly cause diabetes.
- Being overweight or obese always leads to diabetes2
Being overweight or obese is a contributing factor to developing type 2 and gestational diabetes, but the disease affects you regardless of body weight. It may surprise you that about 11% of people with type 2 diabetes are actually of normal weight or underweight. Type 1 diabetes is not associated with body weight. Additionally, only 13% of the 39.8% of people with obesity have diabetes. This is why it is important for all to take steps to lower their risk of disease, regardless of body weight!
- People with diabetes cannot eat dessert3,4
Have your cake and eat it too! Just because you have diabetes, it does not mean you should entirely cut out eating cookies, cake, and chocolate. Restricting yourself can cause you to binge or over eat. As long as you are following a balanced diet, a small portion of sweets in moderation can be enjoyed by you and your body. Yet, remember to balance your plate by limiting your carbohydrates during your meal to take in account your treat. Another way you could still eat your meal with higher carbohydrates is reaching for lower carbohydrate versions of your treats. There are thousands of these recipes online, like for these peanut butter cookies, cheesecake, and greek yogurt ice cream.
- Avoid carbs and starchy foods like potatoes3-5
All of the carbohydrates in the food you eat like grains, fruits, dairy, vegetables, and sweets are converted into glucose, your cells’ energy source. Your body releases insulin, so your cells can take up the energy to perform cellular processes. More carbohydrates do increase your glucose levels, but they are needed for your body to carry out its daily functions. All carbohydrates are not equal, so the issues with carbohydrates are the type and amount. Carbohydrates that are lower on the glycemic index (GI) scale like oatmeal, legumes, and whole-grain bread are preferred than foods with higher GIs.
If you want to lower your risk, the key is food portion control. Instead of eating a large plate of fries, try limiting your carbohydrate serving to a quarter of a nine-inch plate by following the Healthy Eating Plate Method. For starchy foods, choose more foods like sweet potatoes and oatmeal that are higher in fiber and less processed to get your nutritional needs. The chart below displays the Healthy Eating Plate Method and examples of nutritious foods to create a balanced diet.
For more information on creating a balanced diet and low GI foods, visit Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Plate website or talk with your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist about your carbohydrate goal.
- Having diabetes means you have to have a special diet3,6
Just because you have diabetes, it does not mean you need a special sugarless diet or only eat ‘diabetic friendly’ foods. Be careful when eating foods that mention being ‘diabetic friendly’ because they can still raise glucose levels, contain sugar alcohols that may upset your stomach, and be more expensive. You eat the same foods as everyone else, but the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that you mainly get your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, whole grains, and fruit. In fact, the right amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein in your diet better manages your glucose levels and meets your body’s needs. The ADA recommends that those with diabetes follow the Diabetes Plate Method to better manage their condition and consume about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal. Just use a nine-inch plate to fill half of it with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with protein, and a quarter with carbohydrates. Add water or a low-calorie drink. It’s easy, as shown below!
For more information, visit the ADA website to learn more about the Diabetes Plate Method, types of foods, portion control, and meal plans. Talk with your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian before making changes to your diet to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs.
- Diabetes is not a serious disease1,7-9
Diabetes is a very serious disease that is responsible for about four million deaths per year. About 10.5% of the United States population or 34.2 million people have diabetes. Of those 34.2 million people with diabetes, 7.3 million people do not realize they have the condition. Diabetes affects not just your blood sugar, but can increase your risk of high cholesterol, hypertension, stroke, heart attack, kidney disease, glaucoma, cataract, and neuropathy or tingling in your hands or feet. Luckily, whether you live with diabetes, know someone who does, or want to lower your risk of disease, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of complications. These include losing 5 to 10% of your body weight, getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, smoking cessation, and following the Healthy Eating Plate.
Talk to your pharmacist, fitness coach, or doctor before you engage in physical activity to create a gradual activity plan or check that the activity is right for you.
- There is a cure for diabetes7
Diabetes is a complex and highly prevalent disease, but there is currently not a cure. Many herbal and natural products like cinnamon and turmeric may help your body use insulin in type 2 diabetes, but they do not cure the disease. There is also not a cure for type 1 diabetes. Yet, prediabetics can actually reverse it before it develops into full diabetes by changing their diet and lifestyle.
If you use natural medicines, be sure to speak with your pharmacist or doctor to ensure your medications are not interacting with your diabetic medications, or increasing your chance of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that can affect your entire body system. Almost everyone either knows someone who has the condition or has it. As the condition grows, it is crucial we spread awareness and the truth about its causes, complications, risks, prevention, and lifestyle changes. Let’s break the stigma!
- American Diabetes Association. Classification and diagnosis of diabetes: Standards of medical care in diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2020;43(1): S14-S31. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc20-S002.
- Newman T. Diabetes: Dispelling 11 common myths. Medical news today website. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/medical-myths-all-about-diabetes#1.-Eating-sugar-causes-diabetes. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- Myths about diabetes. American Diabetes Association website. https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-risk/prediabetes/myths-about-diabetes. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- McDermott A. 10 Diabetes diet myths. Healthline website. https://www.healthline.com/health/diabetes/diet-myths. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- Healthy eating plate. Harvard University website. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- Eat good to feel good. American Diabetes Association website. https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/eating-well. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- Snouffer E. Top 5 greatest myths about diabetes. Diabetes voice website. https://diabetesvoice.org/en/advocating-for-diabetes/top-5-greatest-myths-about-diabetes/. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- National diabetes statistics report, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/index.html. Accessed August 6, 2021.
- Diabetes myths and facts. MedlinePlus website. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000964.htm. Accessed August 6, 2021.