Written by Emily Howard

“It’s hard to believe that something that seems so good can actually hurt you.”

That’s what my mom told me during a conversation last week about food. Well, she was actually talking about her end of year sugar binge that carried over well into 2016. Except that she and I weren’t talking about unwanted weight gain; we were talking about the consequences of her unmonitored diabetes. More specifically, my mom has been developing severe symptoms of diabetic retinopathy over the last two months, which means the blood vessels behind her eyes are swollen and leaking blood into her line of vision. If her doctor hadn’t caught it when she did, my mom could have been permanently blind for the rest of her life. Though diabetic retinopathy does not affect the majority of diabetics, but it is one of many major complications that may arise if diabetes is undiagnosed or unmonitored. Of the 29.1 million Americans living with diabetes, 8.1 million are undiagnosed, like my mom was for nearly 10 years.

Diabetes is a serious disease. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the US resulting from increased risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney disease, and fatal infections. Though stigmatized greatly, the rising number of annual diabetes diagnoses demands positive discourse and proper education about this disease.

Combating Stigmas

There are many stigmas and myths surrounding diabetes such as: only obese individuals get diabetes or you only get diabetes from eating too much sugar. Stigmas characterizing diabetics as lazy or gluttons, amongst other degrading beliefs, has prevented a healthy, open discussion about the disease that affects 9.3% of the American population. In fact, many people are ashamed of admitting they’re diagnosed with diabetes as a result of distasteful jokes and negative online discourse.

While lifestyle factors poor diet, lack of exercise, and excess weight may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, that isn’t always the case. Moreover, type 1 diabetes isn’t caused by any lifestyle factors—type 1 diabetics are simply born without the ability to produce insulin.

Defining the Disease

Diabetes is more complex than simply having high blood sugar. In simple terms, though, it occurs when the body has difficulty processing glucose and manifests in two different types:

Type 1
Approximately 5% of diabetics are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. This means the body does not produce insulin, which is a hormone that helps transfer glucose from the bloodstream into the cells.

Type 2
In those with type 2 diabetes, their pancreas first over-produces insulin to process elevated levels of glucose. Over time, however, the pancreas cannot keep up, leading to a buildup of glucose in the bloodstream.

Type 1 diabetics are often diagnosed at a young age and can undergo insulin therapy and other treatments adjust. Conversely, type 2 diabetics are often diagnosed later in life, potentially exhibiting a number of symptoms:

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive hunger (even while eating)
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts/bruises that are slow to heal
  • Tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands/feet

Type 2 diabetics typically have to make lifestyle changes in regards to diet and exercise in addition to taking medication to assist in moderating glucose levels.

Living with Diabetes

One of the best things an individual can do after being diagnosed as diabetic is to educate themselves; talk at length with your doctor about the next steps to take and do research on your own to help make appropriate lifestyle changes. Close monitoring of glucose levels is critical after being diagnosed with either type of diabetes to keep informed about how your diet and health routines are impacting your diabetes,
whether positively or negatively.

Adjusting how you eat might be one of the biggest challenges with adapting to a new diagnosis. A plant-based diet with foods low on the glycemic index is ideal, but does come with a few caveats. Many foods that are generally considered healthy, like fruits and beans, are converted into sugar once ingested, which can raise one’s blood sugar when consumed in excess. With that in mind, it is paramount to keep moderation in mind when adopting new eating habits.

If you’re concerned you might have diabetes, seek out medical attention. If you are already diagnosed, don’t fear talking with your peers or finding support groups to help with adjustments. Living with diabetes, whether type 1 or type 2, doesn’t have to define your life; it’s is just important to keep it under control to prevent severe complications such as blindness, kidney disease, or something far worse.