MYTH: Eating sweets causes diabetes.
TRUTH: Actually , it doesn’t—at least not in the way you think. Diabetes is caused by a genetic predisposition and lifestyle factors, or by an autoimmune reaction. However, in the case of type 2 diabetes, eating excessive amounts of sugar may influence whether or not the genes for diabetes get triggered.
Talking to groups of people with diabetes, I realize how many people still believe this myth. They’re sure they got diabetes because they ate a lot of pie and ice cream as a kid or last month.
In fact, while checking into my hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to address a group of diabetes patients the next morning, I noticed a platter of home-baked chocolate chip cookies at the reception desk. As I eyed the cookies, debating with myself whether to indulge, the woman who was checking me in picked up a cookie and, with a wink and a smile, said, “I probably shouldn’t eat this.
My mother has type 2 diabetes and this may just seal my fate.” Yes, she may get diabetes if she consumes too many calories and becomes overweight, but not because those calories are coming from sugar.
Diabetes mellitus is the formal name for what’s commonly called diabetes—a group of metabolic disorders all characterized by abnormally high blood sugar that results, not from eating sugar, but from insufficient levels of the hormone insulin, which maintains blood sugar (glucose) at normal levels.
None of the various types of diabetes, including the more common type 2, type 1, and gestational diabetes, share the same cause, yet none is caused by eating sweet or starchy foods. Type 2 diabetes is caused by defects in either insulin secretion or its action, or in both.
In other words, either your pancreas does not produce enough insulin or your body does not properly respond to the insulin it makes. This latter condition is referred to as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is your own body’s inability to use insulin efficiently, and it prevents your cells from getting enough sugar from your bloodstream.
“When I was growing up food was my best friend, and I got into the habit of eating cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, and chips,” Preston, a twenty-six-year-old health worker from Knoxville, told me. “My parents worked late and I was alone a lot; I grazed on sugar to take away the loneliness.” When, at 300 pounds, Preston felt “crummy” enough to heed his sister’s advice and go to the doctor, he discovered his blood sugar was 450 and he had diabetes.
“I just wept and cursed all the sweet things I’d put in my mouth for so many years.” Upon going to a dietitian, Preston learned that diabetes isn’t caused by eating sugar, but because he ate so many sweets, they may have contributed to his insulin resistance, a precursor of type 2 diabetes.
In type 1 diabetes the immune system, which normally protects you from viruses and bacteria, attacks and kills the beta (insulin producing) cells in your pancreas. Within months or a year, the body will produce either just a trace of insulin or none at all. The reasons why this happens are still unclear, but scientists think the causes may be genetic, with one or more environmental triggers.
These may include stress, toxins, or a virus. Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in childhood, although you can get it at any age. And, yes, it is very common for patients with type 1 diabetes to mistakenly think they caused their diabetes by eating a sugary diet.
A diabetes educator told me of a newly diagnosed man in her class who told her that he was certain he got diabetes because he’d eaten so many grapes the past few months. The third most common form of diabetes is gestational diabetes. This form of diabetes is similar to type 2 diabetes, but it occurs only in women during pregnancy.
According to the American Diabetes Association, gestational diabetes affects about 4 percent of all pregnant women, or about 135,000 women in the United States each year. The cause is unknown, but it’s believed that hormones from the mother’s placenta block the action of the mother’s insulin. This causes the mother’s blood sugar to rise.
How type 2 diabetes develops
When one eats sugar or starch, the blood sugar level rises and the pancreas releases the proper amount of insulin to keep blood sugar within the normal range. In someone with type 2 diabetes, the production and/or action of insulin is inefficient, so after eating your blood sugar goes up but doesn’t return to normal levels. Clinicians look at diabetes not as a sugar problem but as an “insulin inefficiency.
” There is, however, an important caveat here: Even though eating sugar does not cause diabetes, “if you have the gene for diabetes, eating an excess of sweets, over time, may accelerate the onset of diabetes by overstressing your beta cells causing them to become compromised,” says Dr. Gerald Bernstein, director of the Diabetes Management Program at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. Bernstein also says that consuming too many calories
Five Ways to Take Care of Your Diabetes
- 1. Your body changes constantly, and the world around you changes constantly. Never take your blood glucose level for granted. Test as often as you are able.
- 2. The most underutilized part of diabetes care is exercise. Do what you are able, but do something on a regular basis.
- 3. Make your testing and insulin injections as ordinary as crossing the street. They will become natural activities rather than events.
- 4. Never stop asking questions of your physician and educators or pharmacists. Grab everything you can.
- 5. Your diabetes education never ends. You don’t graduate. Stay active in a structured diabetes education program.