Diabetes Facts and Myths
It’s important to educate yourself about diabetes so you can help your child manage it. This means arming yourself with the right information. Although the Internet has a wealth of content on diabetes, it’s not always accurate. Information that’s not interpreted correctly, or is inaccurate or misleading, can actually be harmful for someone with diabetes. Even well-meaning family members and friends can give bad information.
Talk to your diabetes health care team when you see information that doesn’t seem quite right, sounds too good to be true, or contradicts what they’ve told you. Never make changes to your child’s diabetes management plan without contacting someone on the health care team first.
Myth: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.
Fact: Type 1 diabetes is caused by a destruction of the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, which is unrelated to sugar consumption. Type 2 diabetes results from the body’s inability to respond to insulin normally. Although the tendency to get type 2 diabetes is genetically inherited in most cases, eating too much sugar (or foods with sugar, like candy or regular soda) can cause weight gain, which can increase the risk for developing the disease.
Myth: Kids with diabetes can never eat sweets.
Fact: Kids with diabetes can eat a certain amount of sugary food as part of a balanced diet, but they need to control the total amount of carbohydrates they eat, which includes sugary treats. Because sweets provide no real nutritional value other than calories, they should be limited — but not necessarily eliminated. All kids (and adults!) should avoid excessive consumption of foods that provide little nutritional value and can crowd out healthier foods.
Myth: Kids can outgrow diabetes.
Fact: Kids do not outgrow diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin are destroyed. Once they’re destroyed, they will never make insulin again. Kids with type 1 diabetes will always need to take insulin (until a cure is found). Although kids with type 2 diabetes may see an improvement in their blood sugar levels after puberty or with lifestyle adjustments, they will probably always have a tendency toward having high blood sugar levels, especially if they are physically inactive or gain too much weight.
Myth: Diabetes is contagious.
Fact: Diabetes is not contagious. You can’t catch it from another person. Although researchers think that getting type 1 diabetes may be triggered by something in the environment, like a virus, most people who get type 1 diabetes have inherited genes that make them more susceptible to the disease.
Myth: High blood sugar levels are normal for some people and aren’t a sign of diabetes.
Fact: Certain conditions (like illness or stress) and certain medications (like steroids) temporarily can cause high blood sugar levels in people without diabetes. But high blood sugar levels are never normal. People who have higher than normal blood sugar levels or sugar in their urine should be checked for diabetes by a doctor.
Myth: People with diabetes can feel whether their blood sugar levels are high or low.
Fact: Although someone with diabetes may feel physical symptoms (such as extreme thirst, weakness, or fatigue) if blood sugar levels are high or low, the only way to know for sure what the levels are is to test them. For example, because blood sugar levels have to be very high to cause symptoms, a person who isn’t testing regularly may be having blood sugar levels high enough to damage the body without even realizing it.
Myth: All people with diabetes need to take insulin.
Fact: All people with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin injections because their pancreases don’t make insulin anymore. Some, but not all, people with type 2 diabetes have to take insulin with or without pills to manage their blood sugar levels.
Myth: Insulin cures diabetes.
Fact: Taking insulin helps manage diabetes, but doesn’t cure it. Insulin helps get glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells, where it can be used for energy. This helps keep blood sugar levels under control, but taking insulin doesn’t correct the underlying cause.
Myth: Tablets or pills for diabetes are a form of insulin.
Fact: Diabetes medicines taken by mouth are not a form of insulin. Insulin is a protein that would be broken down or destroyed by the acids and digestive enzymes in the stomach and intestines if swallowed. Currently there is no other practical way to deliver insulin except via injections, although researchers are working on ways to give insulin by mouth, in the nose, or inhaling it into the lungs. Some people with type 2 diabetes take pills or tablets that help the body make more insulin or use the insulin it makes more effectively. But pills for diabetes cannot help kids with type 1 diabetes because they are no longer able to make insulin.
Myth: Having to take more insulin means diabetes is getting worse.
Fact: Insulin doses need to be continuously adjusted to help keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. Many factors affect blood sugar levels, including diet, exercise, and time of day. In addition, insulin doses may need to be changed over time. At the time of diagnosis, the pancreas may still be able to make some insulin, so less injected insulin may be needed. However, as the pancreas makes less and less insulin, more insulin needs to be given by injection to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. How fast kids are growing, whether they’re undergoing puberty, how much they eat, and how active they are affect the amount of insulin needed each day.
Myth: Kids with diabetes don’t have to take their insulin or pills when they’re sick.
Fact: When kids are sick, especially if they are throwing up or not eating much, giving insulin might not seem like the right thing to do. However, it is very important to keep taking insulin during illness. Insulin doses may need to be adjusted during illness (check with your doctor) but they can’t be skipped altogether. Kids need energy when they’re sick to help the body heal itself, and insulin helps them use that energy properly. Speak with the diabetes health care team to make sure you understand what to do during a sick day.
Myth: Kids with diabetes can’t exercise.
Fact: Exercise is important for all kids — with or without diabetes! Exercise offers many benefits to kids with diabetes. It helps them manage their weight and prevents them from gaining excess body fat. It also improves cardiovascular health, boosts mood, relieves stress, and helps blood sugar control. Discuss exercise guidelines and blood sugar management with the diabetes health care team.
Myth: Low-carbohydrate diets are good for kids with diabetes because they should avoid carbs.
Fact: Carbohydrates (carbs) are the body’s preferred source of energy, and carbohydrate-containing foods should provide about 50% to 60% of a person’s calories each day. Low-carb diets tend to be overloaded with protein and fat. Following a high-fat, high-protein diet over the long term may increase the risks of heart and kidney disease in adulthood (which people with diabetes are already at increased risk for). People with diabetes should follow a healthy, balanced diet. Usually this means adopting a meal plan that helps them balance carbohydrate intake with medication and exercise to achieve good diabetes control.
Myth: There are cures for diabetes, but doctors and the government aren’t telling anyone.
Fact: No matter what you may hear or see on the Internet, there is no cure for diabetes. Many scientists and researchers have dedicated their careers to finding a cure for diabetes, and they’ve made many advances in diabetes research. But the only way to manage diabetes now is to take insulin and medications as prescribed, eat a balanced diet, get plenty of physical activity, and check blood sugar levels regularly. Until there really is a cure for diabetes, do your best to manage your child’s diabetes with the tools available now.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2013