12 Common Diabetes Myths Debunked

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Myth #1: People with diabetes can't eat anything sweet.

Relax -- despite what you may have heard, a piece of cake or a couple of cookies won't cause a health crisis. In fact, sweets can be eaten in moderation by people with type 2 diabetes, if eaten as part of a healthy meal plan and combined with exercise, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Still, while avoiding sweet treats isn't mandatory, limiting them is. Sweets often contain not only empty calories but a lot of sugar, a carbohydrate that raises glucose levels considerably. For better glucose control, diabetics should have dessert only after a low-carb meal. It's important to eat that chicken breast, broccoli, and salad before dishing into some ice cream.

Myth #2: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.

No, chocaholics aren't destined to develop diabetes. The disease is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. And the high level of sugar in someone's bloodstream is not the same thing as the refined stuff you buy in bags from the supermarket. That said, being overweight can increase the risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and eating a lot of sugar can pack on the pounds. If your family has a history of diabetes, eating healthfully and exercising regularly is recommended to keep everyone's weight in check. For those who already have diabetes, those same things will help them manage the disease.

Myth #3: People with diabetes must eat a special diet.

A healthy diet for someone with diabetes is the same as a healthy diet for an yone else. How does that look? A wholesome meal plan is based on whole-grain foods, lean protein, vegetables, and fruit. Such a diet is low in fat (particularly saturated and trans fat), salt, and simple sugars. So-called diabetic foods offer no special benefits. The best bet is to skip these costly commercial offerings and head for the produce aisle instead.

Myth #4: You can catch diabetes from someone else.

Diabetes is not an infectious or contagious disease. Scientists don't know for sure exactly what causes the disorder, but it can't be caught from another person, like a cold or the flu. There, does, however, appear to be a genetic link with type 2 diabetes: If a family member has the condition, you're at higher risk fo r the disease.

Myth #5: There are only two types of diabetes.

Not so. Diabetes refers to a group of diseases -- all of which require serious attention -- that have in common the body's inability to properly convert glucose from food into energy, leading to a high level of sugar in the blood. The main kinds include type 1 (formerly known as juvenile-onset diabetes), type 2 (once called adult-onset diabetes), and gestational (which occurs only during pregnancy). The suspected causes differ for each type, but managing any type of diabetes requires balancing food, physical activity, and, if needed, medications. And while people with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day for their entire lives, type 2 diabetes is no less of a concern, because ignoring it could lead to devastating complications such as blindness, heart attack, and stroke.

Myth #6: Only people with diabetes need insulin.

Everybody needs insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that allows the body to convert food into energy for activity. People who don't have diabetes make and use the right amount of this chemical. People with diabetes either don't make any insulin, don't make enough, or can't use the insulin they make properly. If you or someone you're caring for has type 2 diabetes, it's important to balance food, activity, and -- in some cases -- medications, which may include insulin injections or an insulin pump (insulin isn't available in pill form), to get the necessary amount of this essential hormone. And to dispense with another myth in this area: Insulin is a tool to manage diabetes, not a cure.

Myth #7: Nothing can be done to prevent diabetes complications.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies show that d iabetes-related complications can be prevented or delayed by following a self-care treatment plan that keeps blood sugar levels under control and by getting regular medical checkups. Many people with type 2 diabetes also have high blood pressure and cholesterol. Keeping these twin conditions in check as well can also go a long way toward warding off complications such as nerve damage and kidney failure.

Myth #8: Only overweight people get diabetes.

Here's the skinny on this one: Many people who have type 2 diabetes carry excess pounds, and some are obese, but many elderly people with the condition aren't particularly overweight. If you or the person you're caring for needs to shed some weight, it may be motivating to learn that even modest weight loss through healthier eating and increased activity can help keep long-term complications at bay. But diabetes doesn't discriminate: Even Slim Jims can succumb to the disease.

Myth #9: People with diabetes shouldn't exercise.

The exact opposite is true: Exercise is a key component of any diabetes treatment plan, as it helps diab etics better use insulin and lower or maintain weight. Alas, exercise is often the most overlooked weapon in the arsenal against this disease, underestimated by both patients and care providers . If the person in your care hasn't been active in a long time, is overweight, or has other medical conditions or mobility issues, then it's wise to get his or her main diabetes care provider's green light before he or she embarks on an exercise regimen. But barring severe disability or serious complications, physical activity of some sort -- and this doesn't have to mean working out at a gym -- should be done regularly by everyone with diabetes, regardless of age. You might encourage the person you're caring for to take walks with you, for instance.

Myth #10: People who follow their treatment plan never have high blood sugar readings.

It's too bad this myth isn't true. Unfortunately, someone with diabetes may experience the odd stubbornly high reading even if he's diligently following all his doctors' orders. Type 2 diabetes isn't an easy disease to manage -- and as we age, our bodies are constantly changing, as is our reaction to stress, infections, illness, medications, exercise, and diet. Little wonder, then, t hat sometimes our blood sugar doesn't cooperate.

It's best to praise a diabetic's hard work when he does hit his recommended range, but don't let an occasional high reading give him the excuse to throw in the towel. If he keeps on following his treatment plan, he'll find that, overall, his glucose control is on target.

Myth #11: It's possible to have "just a touch" or "a little" diabetes.

Nope, you either have type 2 diabetes or you don't -- period. And if you have the disease, you need to pay attention to it. Even if diet and exercise changes keep the disease in check a nd you don't need oral medications or insulin injections, the condition still demands that you follow a self-management treatment plan that includes glucose monitoring and making careful lifestyle choices.

Myth #12: People diagnosed with diabetes are doomed.

Far from it. While it's true that diabetes is a long-term disease without a cure and tha t diabetics might experience some pretty nasty complications if their blood sugar levels are allowed to soar sky-high for years, they can avoid that fate.

Many people can and do lead busy, active, spontaneous lives while also managing their type 2 diabetes. A diabetes diagnosis alone doesn't rule out travel, having fun, or partaking in many common pastimes or pursuits. Simply put, they must follow their treatment regimen, plan ahead, and take extra precautions when necessary, such as checking blood sugar more often if they're traveling across the country, or packing the right foods if they're taking a long car trip. With a little help and support from family or friends and the assistance of a good healthcare team, it's possible to live a full and fulfilling life even with a diabetes diagnosis.


Sarah Henry

Sarah Henry has covered health stories for most of her more than two decades as a writer, from her ten-year stint at the award-winning Center for Investigative Reporting to her staff writer position with Hippocrates magazine to her most recent Web work for online sites, including WebMD, Babycenter. See full bio