Myth or fact: Examining common diabetes misconceptions

November 1, 2017 Providence Health Team

Diabetes affects more than 29 million people in the United States, and almost one in three adults has prediabetes. Although it’s a common disease, there is still a lot of uncertainty around its causes and effects, and even more doubt about the lifestyle associated with it.

Dr. Liz Stephens, endocrinologist and Medical Director at Providence Endocrinology East and West and Diabetes Education Center, aims to quell any misunderstanding and fear about diabetes by debunking its most common myths.

For Dr. Stephens, getting involved in diabetes treatment and awareness stemmed from her own personal experiences with the disease. “After I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I appreciated the struggle that people with diabetes were experiencing, and I wanted to take more of a leadership role caring for them.” She continues, “It’s important for people to know that they can take small steps to care for themselves and treat this disease. I want them to know that with awareness and self-care they can feel empowered again. Educating themselves about their symptoms is crucial to living their best life.”

Additionally, parents of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes shouldn't feel as though their actions had an impact on their child developing the disease.

"There is always a lot of guilt when a child is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes," said Cydney Fenton, M.D., a medical director of the Endocrine and Diabetes Clinic at Providence Medical Group Pediatric Subspecialties in Anchorage, Alaska. "I always reassure families that they did nothing to cause their child's diabetes and that there was nothing that they could have done to prevent their child from developing diabetes." 

If you or a loved one live with diabetes, take a moment to sort through some of the most common truths and falsehoods about this prevalent but misunderstood disease:

1) People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop diabetes

True: According to Dr. Stephens, “It’s more common to develop diabetes when you are obese or overweight. However, with the right changes to your diet and exercise, you can be proactive and have more control over it. But just because you’re overweight doesn’t mean that’s the sole reason you develop diabetes. A lot of patients blame themselves for the disease, but there are many genetic components that can influence diabetes. If patients become more aware of their family history, they can make changes to their lifestyle to better themselves.”

2) If you eat a lot of sugar, you’ll get diabetes

False:Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes, specifically. Excessive intake of carbohydrates and calories does. You don’t necessarily have to eat cake all the time to get diabetes. Essentially, the more calories you consume without exercise and activity, the more at risk you are to develop diabetes,” says Dr. Stephens.

3) If you have diabetes, you can’t eat sugar

False: Dr. Stephen explains, “We suggest that our patients make healthy choices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ruling out sugar. Sugar is present in fruit, and patients need that in their diet. There are many opportunities to eat with intention and to eat in a way that’s good for your body, with or without diabetes. The most important thing is to eat whole foods and avoid processed options.”

4) People with diabetes are likely to get other illnesses

True: “Diabetes can lead to cardiovascular diseases, and type 1 diabetes is associated with other autoimmune diseases. Most of these diseases can be managed through medication and lifestyle changes, but if your diabetes isn’t well controlled, having high blood sugar can make it harder to fight infection. Screening is crucial in determining your risk for other illnesses and managing your diabetes and possible complications,” encourages Dr. Stephens.

5) Diabetes isn’t that serious of a disease

False: According to Dr. Stephens, “Diabetes is serious because it impacts every aspect of our lives. Every decision we make and how we think about our body centers around diabetes and how that moment will impact us later. Being aware of the effects of diabetes is crucial to taking better care of ourselves.”

6) Insulin causes blindness

False: “Despite what others may say, insulin itself does not cause blindness. However, not taking care of yourself by managing your diabetes properly can cause blindness in some patients – mostly because poorly controlled blood sugar is a risk factor.”

7) Women with diabetes cannot safely have children

False: “So many women come to me with this concern. Women with diabetes can definitely have kids – it’s just more work. When you are pregnant with diabetes, it’s not just about you anymore; it’s about you and the baby. That means being prepared, being knowledgeable and seeking out the proper care,” explains Dr. Stephens.

Patients are not the only ones who need to be aware about diabetes—others in the community should also do their part. Dr. Stephen says, “When I see people in our clinic, I talk to them about shame and compassion. Diabetes can be isolating. I encourage others to take the opportunity to connect with people living with diabetes any way they can. Whether it’s through social media or exercise groups, it’s important to know that diabetes is more common than you think, and finding ways to reach out to others will help empower them to take control of the disease.”

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About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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