Dispelling Myths about Diabetes
More than 30 million people in the United States have diabetes, and nearly 1.5 million people are newly diagnosed each year.
And, according to Amy Brant, wellness nurse and diabetes program manager for the Iredell Wellness & Diabetes Center, this number is only increasing.
“As each year goes by, diabetes diagnosis rates are intensifying astronomically. We were seeing this trend happen already, but after the pandemic, we’ve seen diagnoses increase even more,” said Brant.
“We now see more people working from home, no longer going to the gym, no longer going outside, and no longer getting as much exercise. When we are sitting at home, we tend to eat out of habit or boredom rather than out of necessity. Once we build that habit, it’s tough to break,” she added.
Diabetes is undeniably one of the most widespread medical conditions worldwide, but it’s also a very complex disease. Due to the disease’s complexity and because diabetes is so common, many myths, misconceptions, and stigmas abound.
“A lot of the misconception comes from a lack of education and a lack of access to education. Diabetes is typically not taken seriously until it becomes very serious. The many jokes about diabetes, like saying a donut or another sweet treat ‘looks like diabetes,’ also does not help the misinformation,” said Brant.
In late October of this year, our federal government officially proclaimed November National Diabetes Awareness Month. During this month, take the opportunity to learn more and uncover the truth about diabetes. By educating ourselves, we can begin to dispel the many myths that have forever surrounded the condition and help millions of people avoid diabetes or prevent its complications.
Below, Brant briefly explains the types of diabetes and challenges some of the most common myths that accompany the condition.
Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes account for nearly all cases of diabetes, though only a small percentage, about 5%-10% of the people with diabetes, have Type 1.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body can no longer produce any insulin. Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose, or sugar, from the blood to the cells, where it can be used for fuel. When little to no insulin is in the body, glucose builds up in the blood.
The lack of insulin happens when the pancreas, which produces insulin, is attacked by your immune system.
“Type 1 is considered an autoimmune form of diabetes. Many times, it’s a virus that you have a few months before a diagnosis, and instead of the immune system attacking the virus, it makes a mistake that ultimately leads to the destruction of the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin,” said Brant.
Since their body can longer make insulin, people with Type 1 diabetes have to take insulin shots or wear an insulin pump.
You cannot prevent Type 1 diabetes. On the other hand, Type 2 diabetes can be preventable, but it is far more common.
“Type 2 diabetes usually starts with a phase of prediabetes where blood sugars begin to elevate. If you do not go to the doctor on a regular basis, then you may never know you are in that phase. However, it is the primary time to make some lifestyle changes and avoid or delay a diabetes diagnosis,” said Brant.
Type 2 diabetes happens when the body does not use insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance. It causes glucose to build up in your blood and makes your body unable to properly metabolize the foods you eat.
“When the foods you eat break down into glucose, the body does not optimally use that glucose as energy because the glucose is not as able to get to the cells,” said Brant.
People with Type 2 diabetes can manage their disease by controlling blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Myth #1: Once you take insulin, you’re no longer a Type 2. You’re a Type 1.
Since all Type 1 diabetics take insulin but not all Type 2 do, this misconception is something Brant hears often. But, Type 2 diabetes cannot turn into Type 1 diabetes.
“We still see plenty Type 2 patients that must take insulin,” said Brant.
Those with Type 2 may be able to control their blood sugar levels by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but medication and insulin may be needed in the future.
Myth #2: People with diabetes cannot eat carbohydrates or sugar.
There are no “forbidden foods” when it comes to diabetes, but according to Brant, being smart about your food choices and controlling portion sizes are key.
“The problem with the way we eat in our country, and really the world at large, is that we don’t portion control well,” said Brant.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet and are necessary for energy. However, only one quarter, 25%, of your plate should be carbohydrates — this goes for people with or without diabetes. What’s healthy for people with diabetes is healthy for people without diabetes. Sugars, sweets, and starchy foods can be enjoyed as long as they’re part of a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet and regular exercise.
“People with diabetes absolutely can have forms of carbohydrates and sugar, they just need to be smart about portion planning and not giving too much to their body at one time,” she said.
Myth #3: Only overweight individuals will develop diabetes.
This is a very common misconception. Not all people who are overweight get diabetes, and not all people who have diabetes are overweight. People of all shapes, sizes — and body weights — can get diabetes.
“Obesity does not always lead to diabetes. There are patients whose weight may be a concern for their doctor, but their pancreas is functioning properly, and they have no issues with blood sugar. It is not a verified fact that obesity will always cause diabetes, but it is a leading risk factor,” said Brant.
While it’s true that being overweight is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, it’s just one piece of the larger picture. Other risk factors include family history, race, ethnicity, and age.
“Body weight is more of an issue in Type 2, however, that’s not always the case. We have Type 1 patients who are overweight and have Type 2 that are not,” said Brant.
Myth #4: No one in my family has diabetes, so I will not get it.
“This is becoming a more and more talked about topic. We used to have this list of our most at-risk groups based on ethnic background, family history, body weight, and other factors. But now, we’re starting to see that shift with the availability of fast food and people’s busy schedules that leave less time for meal planning,” said Brant.
“You do not have to have a family history to get diabetes. Everyone has a potential risk for diabetes,” she added.
Myth #5: Diabetes isn’t serious.
Diabetes is a serious disease. It can cause complications that affect almost every part of the body, including eye problems, kidney failure, nerve damage, poor circulation that may lead to amputation, and it increases your risk for heart disease or stroke.
“Sometimes people fail to recognize the seriousness of diabetes until they actually have severe complications,” said Brant.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the stages of grief when it comes to a diabetes diagnosis. When people are in that prediabetes phase, where they may not be feeling a lot of symptoms and do not really feel anything wrong, they may not take it very seriously or believe it is not something they should worry about just yet. But, the prediabetes phase is where we want to catch them because it’s definitely possible to turn it around at that stage,” she said.
Myth #6: People with diabetes cannot live a healthy life.
People living with diabetes can absolutely still live a healthy life. However, it all comes down to the decision that the person makes.
“Doctors are going to be a large part of that plan, but the patient has to be in the driver’s seat and buy into the idea of living a healthy life. It’s 100% possible for people with diabetes to keep blood sugar levels controlled, but it’s not always easy to do,” said Brant.
“It takes discipline and learning, but that’s what we, as diabetes educators, are here to do. We are here to offer that education and provide the right tools for patients to manage their diabetes,” she added.
“When we talk about diabetes awareness, and the whole goal of November, we want people to ask questions to learn what they need to know. We want to help patients thrive with a diabetes diagnosis and know that we’re here to help,” said Brant.
If you would like to learn how to better manage your diabetes, speak to your primary care provider about a referral to the Iredell Wellness & Diabetes Center. You can also call the diabetes center directly at 704-878-4556 and request they contact your provider.