6 Common Myths and Misconceptions About Diabetes

You may be surprised at the causes of and treatment for this chronic, and often deadly, disease.

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Every day, more than 4,000 adults are diagnosed with diabetes and about 200 people die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to figures released last year, nearly 24 million Americans have diabetes. It is one of the major causes of heart disease, stroke, new cases of adult blindness, and leg and foot amputations not caused by injury. Those are facts.

Yet there are many mistaken beliefs about diabetes; the American Diabetes Association recently surveyed more than 2,000 Americans about the most common ones. Sue McLaughlin, president of healthcare and education at the ADA, offered her opinion of what she says are the six most common myths and misconceptions about diabetes:

Diabetes is not that serious. In fact, diabetes causes more deaths than breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined, McLaughlin says. Still, people with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of the disease—may go a long while, even years, before being diagnosed because they may downplay their symptoms or write them off to other causes. So if you are making frequent trips to the bathroom at night; experience extreme thirst, overwhelming fatigue, or blurry vision; or notice that you keep getting infections, ask your doctor to test you for diabetes. An early diagnosis can help ward off complications.

Eating too much sugar causes diabetes. "Certainly, anybody will benefit from eating less sugar. . . because it is not a nutrient-dense ingredient," McLaughlin says. That said, simply eating too much sugar does not cause diabetes.

Being overweight causes diabetes. Just because a person gains weight doesn't mean she's going to get type 2 diabetes. Having a body mass index over 25 is just one of several risk factors for diabetes, but there are many overweight people who don't get the disease, McLaughlin says. Still, being obese—having a body mass index of 35 or more—is considered to be a major risk factor, and the increase seen in diabetes diagnoses has coincided with a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States, according to the CDC.

Other risk factors for diabetes include being older than 45, a lack of regular physical activity, or a family history of diabetes. You're also at risk if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, polycystic ovarian syndrome, metabolic syndrome, or acanthosis nigricans (a condition that causes dark, thickened skin around the armpits or the neck). Having suffered from gestational diabetes during pregnancy or given birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds also raises the risk of the disease. And African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans, and American Indians are at higher risk than are Caucasians.

Having diabetes means you must eat foods that are different from everyone else's. People with diabetes don't need to follow a restricted diet but instead should try to follow the same healthful eating guidelines as everyone else, including choosing foods that are lower in fat, higher in nutrients, and contain an appropriate amount of calories, McLaughlin says. "Everyone needs to be eating healthier. And if you haven't followed healthy eating habits before now, [a diagnosis] is a good wake-up call to make positive changes," she says.

A diabetes diagnosis means you automatically need insulin. That's the case with type 1 diabetes but not with type 2 diabetes. In some cases, proper diet, exercise, and oral medications, if needed, can keep type 2 diabetes under control for some time before insulin becomes necessary, McLaughlin says. The key is to make a lifestyle change. That means no smoking, more healthful eating habits, and regular exercise.

Only older people get diabetes. These days, children as young as age 5 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, McLaughlin says. "It used to be that kids just got type 1 diabetes," which is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes, she says, but now the split between type 1 and type 2 in people under 18 is about 60-40, she says. To help prevent diabetes in children, parents should try to encourage good habits for the entire family. That means less video game and TV time, more physical activity, less junk food, and smaller portions.