Nearly 24 million Americans—or 1 in 10 adults—have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which projects that by 2050, as many as 1 in 3 adults will have the disease. Diabetes 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. Sue McLaughlin, former president of healthcare and education at the American Diabetes Association, offered her opinion of what she says are the six most common myths and misconceptions about diabetes, based on an ADA survey of more than 2,000 Americans released in 2009.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 ever get the disease, McLaughlin says. Still, being obese—having a body mass index of 30 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 ovary 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Only older people get diabetes. These days, children as young as age 5 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, McLaughlin says. That's a big change from 20 or 30 years ago. When a child or adolescent was diagnosed back then, she says, "you could be almost 100 percent sure that he or she had type 1," which is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes. Not anymore. 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.
Additional reporting by Megan Johnson.
Updated on 11/11/10: This is an updated version of a previously published story.