In 2014, the International Diabetes Foundation reported 387 million people in the world have diabetes, with millions of cases going undiagnosed.
Most people associate diabetes with excessive sugar intake or unhealthy living and think having diabetes means constantly taking shots of insulin. In fact, many don't realize there are actually a variety of diabetes that affect people in different ways. While some of the preconceptions surrounding the disease contain an ounce of truth, there are more facts dispelling these presumptions than supporting them. With so many people now affected by diabetes, it's important to know how to separate fact from fiction, especially now, when one in two people with diabetes don't know they have the condition, according to the IDF.
Here are five fictions about diabetes and why they aren't quite true:
Myth No. 1: Diet causes Type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes results from the body not producing enough insulin, a hormone the body needs to convert starches, sugar and other foods into energy. A diagnosis of this condition means your pancreas can no longer produce insulin, but injections of insulin through a pen or pump can help keep your blood glucose levels in check.
This type of diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that can't be prevented, caused in part by a combination of spontaneous genetic risk and environmental exposure including exposure to some common viral infections, such as enteroviruses and Epstein-Barr virus. These can also trigger an abnormal immune response that will attack not only the virus but also the body's pancreas.
This condition is usually discovered early in children, and nearly 90 percent with Type 1 diabetes don't have an associated family history for it. Unfortunately, researchers haven't discovered how to prevent Type 1 diabetes.
We do know, however, that it is not caused by how much sugar a person eats. Many parents blame themselves when their kid gets diagnosed with the disease, but the truth is, a person cannot eat his or her way to this type of diabetes. Though eating sugary cereals or drinking sweetened soft drinks is not the healthiest option for anyone, the bottom line is, consuming sugar is not the reason for Type 1 diabetes.
Myth No. 2: People with diabetes cannot eat sugar.
Sugar can, in fact, be consumed in moderation. As mentioned before, people often think diabetes is a sugar intake problem. So, they reason, if you don't eat sugar, you won't get diabetes or you will not have problems with your diabetes.
Unfortunately, that is an oversimplification. In contrast to Type 1 Diabetes, Type 2 occurs because the body does not use insulin properly and the blood glucose level is higher than normal. However, people with Type 2 diabetes don't just have trouble processing sugars -- they also have difficulty processing fats. Thus, a high-fat diet can increase glucose levels just as much as sugar can. While the type of carbohydrate can impact how fast blood glucose levels rise, the total amount of carbs you eat affects the level more than the type. Thus, a diet heavy on carbohydrates (pastas, breads and grains) can be just as hard to control as a diet high in processed sugars.
Diabetes patients should eat a well-rounded, healthy diet with particular attention to portion control. It's not necessary to completely cut out sugar or fat. Carbohydrates and fat can be part of a healthy diabetes dietary plan. Patients can still enjoy these foods -- just in moderation.
The diet for a person with diabetes is similar to the heart-healthy diet, which includes fruits and other sugars in a healthy quantity along with vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.
Myth No. 3: Insulin is the last treatment for diabetes.
Insulin is the most effective treatment for Type 1 diabetes, and sometimes even for Type 2. In fact, it's always my first choice for a patient because it helps give the body some rest from trying to deal with the lack of production (Type 1) or the misuse of insulin by the body (Type 2).
Finding an insulin routine, whether it includes insulin pens, syringes or pumps, is an effective way to help keep your blood glucose level near normal. However, people often view insulin injections as inconvenient or painful, and they often look to it as a last resort.
The truth is, insulin injections give patients control over their bodies and can be adjusted to fit each individual's unique lifestyle. They are the most practical, convenient and beneficial option for diabetes patients. Many people use insulin only in times of need, and this debunks the myth that once on insulin -- always on insulin.
Myth No. 4: Being out of control is part of diabetes.
New treatments and technology have put the control of managing diabetes directly in the hands of the patient. While most people think it's normal for glucose levels to jump around inconsistently, there are tools that allow doctors to match a treatment plan with each individual's lifestyle.
In the past, people with diabetes had to lead regimented lifestyles, making sure they ate at specific times or took insulin shots at regular intervals. Although this is one way of managing the disease, it's not the only way. New methods of treatment allow people to match their insulin around their life instead of the other way around.
Insulin does the same work for your body everyday, but that doesn't mean you have to do the same thing each day. For instance, I see patients who inject a set amount of insulin based on the carbs they are ingesting right before eating, which allows different variations in their diets. The insulin can work with the meal's sugars. However, if you do decide to take this route, you'll need more frequent doses.
With the discovery of new methods and technology, patients are empowered more than ever before to take charge of their diagnosis.
Myth No. 5: Artificial sweeteners are better for you than sugar
This relates back to myth No. 2 and involves people trying to find ways to satisfy their sweet tooth while still (mistakenly) avoiding sugars altogether.
Many "sugar-free" foods actually have sugar alcohols in them. They may not raise sugar levels as high, but there are other side effects that can affect your stomach and intestinal system.
New studies have shown that artificial sweeteners and non-nutrient sweeteners actually increase insulin resistance and hunger. Thus, people who are trying to save calories can end up eating more because of the artificial sweeteners.
The best strategy is to take artificial sugars out of your diet altogether. If you're going to eat sugar, get it from natural sweeteners or fruit, but be mindful of your portion intake.
What you think you know about diabetes, or someone who is affected by the condition, may not always be true. Take charge of your knowledge and your body by being able to decipher the difference between fact and fiction.
Dr. Jay Shubrook is a professor and director of Diabetes Services at Touro University California and diabetes specialist with The Optimized Care Network.