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Diabetes is a serious illness

Sorting facts from fiction is important

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About one in seven U.S. adults has diabetes now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But by 2050, that rate could skyrocket to as many as one in three. Many of us don’t understand diabetes. To help contain this leading cause of disability and death, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.

Eating too much sugar

FICTION: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.

FACT: Many factors lead to the development of diabetes. Genetics, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle all play a role. Sugar may contribute to type 2 diabetes if it leads to weight gain, but it doesn’t cause the disease. “A diet high in calories — whether they’re from sugar or fat — raises your risk for type 2 diabetes,” said Mounaf  Alsamman, MD, a family medicine doctor with Allina Medical Clinic – Brooklyn Park. “In this disease, your pancreas makes little or no insulin or your body’s cells don’t use it well. As a result, blood sugar can’t move from your bloodstream into the cells that need it for energy.” Alsamman tells his patients that sugar does not cause diabetes but it still needs to be monitored or reduced. “You just have to make sure to build your sweet treats into a healthy eating and exercise plan,” he explained.

A healthful, balanced diet as well as regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent diabetes. Go for gradual, achievable changes to your sugar intake, such as cutting back on sweetened beverages.

Weight and diabetes

FICTION: Only people who weigh far too much will develop type 2 diabetes.

FACT: People of all ages and body types can develop type 2 diabetes. Being overweight is just one of the risk factors. Many people with type 2 diabetes are at a healthy weight or just moderately overweight. Excess weight increases your risk for the disease. Being slimmer reduces your risk, but it doesn’t get rid of it. People of any weight may be affected.

Family history and diabetes

FICTION: If I have type 2 diabetes risk factors, such as a family history, I’m bound to get it.

FACT: Diabetes does have a strong genetic component, and if you have a family history of diabetes blood tests are recommended every few years starting at age 20. However, diabetes is also strongly affected by lifestyle factors such as weight and eating habits.

According to Warren Shepard, MD and internal medicine doctor with Allina Medical Clinic – Cokato and Allina Medical Clinic – St. Michael, "If a patient has a family history of diabetes, we start talking about it early and teach skills about nutrition, exercise and healthful eating. We can also diagnose prediabetes much earlier than in the past, and we can provide education, tools and sometimes medicine to prevent or delay the diagnosis of diabetes."

Lifestyle and diabetes

FICTION: Reducing my risk for diabetes requires a major lifestyle overhaul.

FACT: Small steps can add up to greatly reduce your risk for diabetes or delay its onset. No special foods or Olympian exercise regimens are required. Experts recommend sensible adjustments: eating smaller amounts of fatty foods and walking more.

Is diabetes serious?

FICTION: I can manage diabetes, so it can’t be serious.

FACT: Diabetes is a major contributor to heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, vascular/blood vessel disease and vision loss. “One of the most common complications for diabetes is foot infections,” said Alberto Ricart, MD, an infectious diseases doctor with Allina Medical Clinic – Fridley. “Numbness and poor circulation in the feet from diabetes allows small foot sores to become worrisome ulcers that don’t heal well. If the sores get bad enough, patients can lose toes or even a foot.” Besides amputation, other complications include heart disease, stroke, blindness and kidney failure.

Diabetes can be managed, but it is serious. If a person with diabetes has good control of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol and does not smoke, the risk of complications will be much lower. Medicine will help, but it can’t do everything. Small lifestyle changes — such as 30 minutes of light to moderate activity daily — make a big difference. In addition, eating a balanced diet and eating smaller portions will make a difference. Doctors and patients must work together to prevent complications. The good news: If you successfully manage diabetes, you may be able to reduce or even stop taking medicine.

Will I have symptoms if I'm developing diabetes?

FICTION: If I’m developing type 2 diabetes, I’ll know something is wrong.

FACT: Some people do have low energy levels, increased thirst, increased appetite, increased need to urinate and unexplained weight loss or gain, but nearly one-quarter of the people in the United States with diabetes don’t know they have it. Everyone should have a yearly physical to review their health, discuss risk factors and have screening tests. If you do not have a family history and other risk factors, your doctor will start screening you at age 45. If you are younger than that, ask your doctor if you think you need a blood glucose test to screen for diabetes.

Can I eat as much fruit as I want?

FICTION: Fruit is a healthy food, so I can eat as much as I want.

FACT: Fruit does contain many nutrients, but some fruits also have a lot of calories and sugar. Blackberries and raspberries are relatively low in sugar and calories. Fruits in the medium range are oranges, pineapple, watermelon and peaches. High-sugar fruits include bananas, grapes, cherries and mangoes.

For resources to help you live well with diabetes, visit allinahealth.org/diabetes.

Content Source: Healthy Communities Magazine, Spring and Fall 2013, and Winter 2014
Review Date: 11/22/2013
Reviewed By: Mounaf Alsamman, MD; Alberto Ricart, MD; Warren Shepard, MD; and Oxana Haflund, MD

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