Call it the battle of blood sugar: Research from the University of Chicago predicts that the number of Americans with diabetes, a disease in which the body doesn’t produce insulin or has trouble using it properly, will nearly double by 2034. If that prediction holds true, more than 44 million people will be labeled diabetic.
You probably know some of the facts about the disease: The two most common forms are Type 1 and Type 2; monitoring blood sugar is the first step in controlling symptoms; and if left untreated, the disease can lead to infections that may require foot amputation. But you may not realize that some information disseminated about diabetes isn’t true. For help deciphering fact from the fiction, read the following and talk to your doctor.
Myth: Diabetes isn’t a very serious disease.
Fact: Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for more deaths each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined. “Diabetes is a chronic disease,” says Dr. Rita R. Kalyani, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and managing editor of the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Guide. “While on a day-to-day basis a person with diabetes may only feel symptoms if their glucose is particularly high or low, over time, persistent elevations in blood glucose can lead to serious complications that can be disabling, such as blindness, amputations or dialysis, and result in both decreased quality-of-life and lifespan.”
Myth: Diabetes is curable.
Fact: Unfortunately, neither Type 1 nor Type 2 diabetes is reversible or curable. But that doesn’t mean diabetics are destined to a life of pill popping to control their symptoms. “Though they’ll still technically have the condition, many people who have Type 2 diabetes can return their blood sugars to normal, nondiabetic levels by simply losing weight and adjusting their diet—they may not require any medication at all,” says Kelly O’Connor, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Myth: Only overweight people get diabetes.
Fact: Diabetes can affect people of various weights, says Dr. Adrian Vella, endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Surprisingly many patients who [are obese] will not have diabetes,” he says. Being overweight or obese can increase insulin resistance and the subsequent risk of Type 2 diabetes, however, but it is only one risk factor. “Normal weight individuals with poor diet and physical inactivity can develop diabetes as well, especially if they have a family history of diabetes,” Kalyani says.
Myth: Type 2 diabetes is less serious than Type 1.
Fact: Type 1 diabetes may seem like the more serious version of the disease because the body has stopped producing insulin altogether. Left untreated for even one day, the resulting uncontrolled build-up of blood sugar can lead to extreme hunger or blurred vision. But because symptoms of Type 2 diabetes—the most common type of diabetes, accounting for up to 90 percent of cases—are milder, damage can accumulate over time, increasing the risk for high cholesterol and heart disease.
Myth: It’s possible to have “just a little” diabetes.
Fact: “There is no such thing as having ‘just a little’ diabetes. You either have diabetes or you don’t,” Kalyani says. It is possible, however, to have prediabetes—a condition in which blood glucose is elevated but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. If you have prediabetes, you are more likely to develop diabetes, but you can reduce your risk by losing 7 to 10 percent of your body weight and engaging each week in about 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking.
Myth: It’s expensive for diabetics to eat the right food.
Fact: Diabetics often have higher medical costs than people who don’t have the disease because they make additional trips to the doctor and must purchase blood-monitoring supplies. But there’s no reason your grocery bill should be significantly higher for choosing a healthful, diabetic-friendly diet. To save money on food, plant a garden; buy in-season whole fruits and vegetables instead of the presliced and packaged variety; opt for bulk-size staples, including oatmeal and nuts; and search the Internet and newspaper for grocery coupons and specials. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed healthy food plans that can feed a family of four for as little as $126 per week.