“At least it’s not as bad as cancer.” Diabetics are up to four times more likely than people without diabetes to die of heart disease or experience a life-threatening stroke. Currently, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. And for those who don’t properly control their condition, the odds of health issues—which range from cardiovascular issues to nerve damage and kidney failure—increases exponentially.
The good news is that diabetes “is absolutely manageable with proper diet, exercise, and medication.
Here are nine myths about type 2 diabetes — and the facts that debunk them.
1. Diabetes isn’t a serious disease.
Diabetes is a serious, chronic disease. In fact, two out of three people with diabetes will die from cardiovascular-related episodes, such as a heart attack or stroke. However, diabetes can be controlled with proper medications and lifestyle changes.
2. Type 2 diabetes is not that serious
Not everyone with type 2 diabetes needs insulin, so it may not seem that serious, says Sarfraz Zaidi, MD, endocrinologist at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “In reality it’s a silent killer, also because those with type 2 don’t have many symptoms,” he says. In actuality, type 2 is more complex than type 1, says Dr. Zaidi, who describes type 2 diabetes as a manifestation of an underlying disease process called insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. “This causes high blood pressure, heart disease, and contributes to the growth of cancer and gout,” he says.
3. Exercising when you have diabetes only increases your chances of experiencing low blood sugar.
Don’t think that just because you have diabetes you can skip out on your workout! Exercise is crucial to controlling diabetes. If you’re on insulin, or a medication that increases insulin production in the body, you have to balance exercise with your medication and diet. Talk to your doctor about creating an exercise program that’s right for you and your body.
4. Needing insulin means you’re failing to take care of your diabetes properly.
Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pancreas that allows your body either to use sugar from food as energy or to store it for later use. When you have type 2 diabetes, your body isn’t able to use insulin properly. And because diabetes is progressive, the body may eventually lose its ability to make enough insulin on its own. Insulin therapy is a viable treatment option in these cases — whether the person is newly diagnosed with diabetes or has been managing for 15 years or more.
5. Eating too many sweets causes type 2 diabetes
It’s an old wives tale that diabetes is caused by eating sugar and candy. What definitely does increase your risk of type 2: being overweight or obese, and of course consuming too much sugar (or calories from any other source) could cause weight gain. Anyone can develop type 2 diabetes (even life-long athletes like Billie Jean King). All it takes is the right combination of lifestyle factors and genetics, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, an endocrinologist and the director of the diabetes management program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. In the past, most people were diagnosed in their 60s or 70s. Extra pounds speed up a diagnosis, meaning more people now get diabetes in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, or even younger.
6. You Need to Cut Out Carbs Completely
This myth stems from the fact that all carbs turn into sugar, or “glucose,” in your blood. Because diabetics have trouble regulating their blood sugar levels, people may assume that cutting out carbs completely will solve all diabetes-related problems. On the contrary, they may raise more problems because sugar is “the main energy source for our brain and body,” according to Synder.
Not to mention, carbs are the exclusive source of the digestion-slowing macronutrient, fiber, in our diet; Studies have connected high fiber diets to good gut health, a lower risk of metabolic diseases, and better regulation of body weight. In fact, multiple organizations, like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, encourage their health care providers to prescribe a whole-food, plant-based diet to their patients.
7. Insulin will harm you.
Insulin is a lifesaver, but it’s also difficult to manage for some people. New and improved insulin allows for much tighter blood sugar control with lower risk of low or high blood sugar. Testing your blood sugar levels, however, is the only way to know how your treatment plan is working for you.
8. Exercise can’t help prevent type 2 diabetes
Part of the essence of prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes is exercise, says Dr. Bernstein. “Exercise burns glucose and makes the cells more sensitive to insulin,” he says. This better enables your cells to take up glucose during and after activity. Exercise may even be more effective than diabetes drugs when it comes to preventing the disease in people most at risk. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, people with prediabetes were given a placebo, the drug metformin, or were prescribed a lifestyle modification program with the goal of 7% weight loss and at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. After about three years, the lifestyle interventions reduced diabetes incidence by 58%, while the drug reduced it just 31%, as compared with the placebo. “Drugs alone are not the answer,” says Dr. Zaidi.
9. Managing diabetes is painful and complicated.
People with diabetes used to have to follow strict mealtime schedules and endure painful insulin injections, but that’s not so anymore. “There have been huge advances in diabetes technology over the past 50 years,” says Taylor. “Tiny needles, fast glucometers, and new medications have made the management of diabetes easier and more convenient.”
A variety of insulin delivery methods are available nowadays, and needles are so small that injections don’t hurt. Pain and complication should belong to the past, so talk to your doctor if you find that any part of your treatment plan is too challenging or uncomfortable.