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Six Myths About Diabetes To Be Aware Of

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Around 3.8 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with diabetes, and it’s thought that anywhere between half a million and a million more have the disease but haven’t yet had it diagnosed. That’s a lot of people, and as ever when a disease is commonplace, a fair few myths rise up around it.

To discuss six of the most common myths about diabetes, we spoke to specialist diabetes dietitian Paul McArdle.

1. Sugar Causes Diabetes

“It’s a common misconception that consumption of sugar causes diabetes, but actually studies show that there isn’t a direct link between sugar and causation of diabetes,” says McArdle. “There is a link between being overweight or obese and type 2 diabetes, and obviously it’s very easy to consume excess calories from sugar. So there’s an indirect link where these excess calories lead to being overweight or obese, which in turn leads to a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. Reducing sugar intake is a huge public health priority for that reason, and that’s why things like low-calorie sweeteners in drinks and the sugar tax are helpful.”

2. Diabetes Only Affects Overweight People

“The data suggests about 80% with type 2 diabetes are overweight, so there is a significant minority of people who have diabetes who aren’t overweight,” says McArdle. “The evidence for the impact of diet is heavily targeted at losing weight, so there aren’t a lot of studies looking at the best diet for someone with diabetes who doesn’t need to lose weight, but typically a Mediterranean-style eating pattern would improve your cardiovascular outcomes and blood glucose control even without weight loss, so that’s the approach I’d take with that kind of person. But we’ve got to be careful of not labelling everyone with type 2 diabetes in the same way.”

3. Diabetes Is A Mild Condition

“People can have that misconception because it’s picked up very early these days, often when people have no symptoms,” says McArdle, “but diabetes remains one of the leading causes of amputations and blindness in adults. The message is that if you maintain good control of blood glucose, attend your screening and appointments, follow the right kind of diet and lose weight if you need too, the risks of those complications is vastly reduced to a level that’s not much greater than in people without diabetes. In the long term, the risks can be minimised significantly, but it is a serious condition if not managed well.”

4. Diabetes Is Over-Diagnosed

“That’s an interesting one,” says McArdle. “We follow the World Health Organisation’s criteria for diagnosing diabetes. There’s what people refer to as pre-diabetes, although it’s technically not called that – it’s caught on because it’s catchy – but non-diabetic hypoglycaemia, which is a lot less catchy. People in that pre-diabetes stage are at very high risk of diabetes, but we know from the research that a vast number of those – 60% plus – can go on to avoid developing diabetes – if they know about it and do something about it.

“This is about prevention. For a lot of those people weight is an issue, as is lifestyle, exercise and so on. We know that preventing diabetes is perfectly achievable if we make some changes – 30 minutes of exercise a day, losing about 5% of your weight and following a healthy diet can all reduce progression on to diabetes by about 60%. So while people might not like that they’re been given a label, knowing about their condition and being given the opportunity to do something about it with the National Diabetes Prevention Programme (opens in new tab) is invaluable.”

5. You’re More Likely To Get Ill If You Have Diabetes

“You’re not necessarily more likely to get ill, but I think the consequences of illness can be more serious, particularly if the diabetes is not well controlled,” says McArdle. “For example, having diabetes with raised blood glucose can increase the risk of certain procedures, or delay healing. That’s why people with diabetes are encouraged to get the flu vaccine even if they’re not over 65.”

6. You Can’t Exercise If You Have Diabetes

“A huge myth!” says McArdle. “Some people do have to balance exercising with their medication, particularly if they’re on a medication that makes their blood glucose too low, but that’s a minority. The vast majority of people in general don’t do enough exercise, and we know that exercise can lower blood glucose, help with weight control and minimise the amount of medication you have to take.”

Nick Harris-Fry
Nick Harris-Fry

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.