THE NOT SO SWEET LIFE – As if the disease itself isn’t bad enough, there’s never a shortage of misinformation and misconceptions about diabetes
For a disease as well-known and as talked-about as diabetes, there is surprisingly a lot that we—as in medical science—still don’t know about. But since it is basically a perennial hot topic, there is a lot of things about diabetes that the average person might misunderstand. Further compounding the problem is the simple fact that there are a lot of lifestyle risk factors involved.
Now, diabetes is often called “the biggest epidemic in human history.” Regardless of whether that assessment is true or not, there’s no denying that the disease is widespread, and its impact—on individual sufferers, their immediate families and friends as well as society as a whole—can be immense. As always, however, the key to combating a disease—whether it’s on a personal level or in support of loved ones battling with it—starts with knowledge. So, here are some of the most important points about diabetes.
The Insulin Connection
What causes diabetes? Far too often, the disease is attributed to too much sugar in one’s diet. While that’s not entirely wrong—and we’ll get back to that—it’s not the whole picture. When we eat food, our body breaks it down into useful components, including glucose, which is a form of sugar that our cells need for fuel. For glucose to reach our cells, it needs to be guided by insulin.
When the glucose levels in our blood rises—say, after a meal—our pancreas will produce the ideal amount of insulin to escort the glucose to where it is needed. Somebody suffering from diabetes, however, either produces not enough insulin or can’t optimally make use of it. High glucose levels, also known as hyperglycemia, will then prompt the classical symptoms of diabetes: Extreme thirst (caused by the body pulling fluids into the bloodstream to dilute it), hunger and weight loss (as cells don’t receive the fuel—i.e., glucose—it needs) as well as excess sugar in the person’s urine (due to the kidneys being unable to cope).
Type 1 vs. Type 2
Now we come to one of the biggest issues surrounding diabetes: the cause. And here we also meet the types of diabetes. Technically, there are four broad categories; but one of them only affects pregnant women and the other is a collection of very specific cases usually labeled “other types.” More often than not, when somebody suffers from diabetes, it’s either type 1 or type 2. The first major difference between these two major types is that type 1 means that the body cannot produce insulin while type 2 means that the body is resistant—or not sufficiently sensitive—to insulin.
The onset of type 1 diabetes is also quite sudden and happens mostly in children. This type of diabetes is usually inherited, with environmental or lifestyle factors such as diet becoming the trigger. There is, however, plenty of unknown (for the time being) factors at play. Conversely, type 2 diabetes affects mostly adults and happens gradually. Genetics also play a part here, but there are more lifestyle risk factors including excess body fat, lack of exercise, dietary habits and stress.
Another important distinction between the two is that type 2 diabetes can be prevented through physical activity and a healthy diet. Before we move on, one particular point needs to be emphasized: Saying that excessive sugar intake causes diabetes of any kind is incorrect. Excessive caloric intake—from any source, but, yes, including sugar—contributes to weight gain, and excessive weight gain contributes to the risk of type 2 diabetes. And type 1 diabetes is, once again, mostly a matter of genetics.
A healthy diet for somebody suffering from diabetes type 2 is more or less the same as a healthy diet for people in general: Low in saturated fats, lean protein, non-starchy vegetables, fruit along with moderate salt and sugar content.
Special care should be taken, however, for fruit. While undoubtedly a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, fruit also contains high levels of carbohydrates, which can, in turn, raise blood glucose levels significantly. This is also why there are more and more health professionals advising against fruit-heavy diets, juice cleanses and the likes. It is all about moderation.
Back to Insulin
One final misconception that we’ll try to address here is the perception that having to take insulin is a sign of failure—either in preventing diabetes or keeping the disease under control. Remember: Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. In many cases, people who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are able to maintain healthy blood glucose levels through exercise, formulating—and sticking to—a healthy meal plan along with oral medication. Over time, however, their bodies lose what little insulin production abilities they have. At that point, insulin injections must be used to manage the disease. Obviously, this is also the only way to deal with type 1 diabetes.
And for sure, diabetes can be dealt with. It just takes a healthy understanding of the condition along with the discipline to follow through on ways to manage it.
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