July 18, 2018

A diabetes expert sorts through the facts that might surprise people who have heard these widely believed myths about type 2 diabetes.


Diabetes is prevalent in the South. About 11.7 percent of Tennesseans, for example,  have been diagnosed with it. Yet there are a lot of misunderstandings about this chronic illness.

Diabetes occurs when blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. Over time, too much glucose in the blood can cause heart disease, nerve damage, eye problems and kidney disease.

The pancreas makes a certain amount of beta cells, which produce the hormone insulin, which allows glucose to go to cells. If the body doesn’t make enough insulin or use it well, glucose stays in the blood and doesn’t get to the cells.

“Insulin is like a key that unlocks the door to cells and allows glucose to go into the cell to be used for energy,” said Elaine Boswell King, quality coordinator of the Diabetes Self-Management Education services at Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Clinic.

Boswell King talks through these myths about type 2 diabetes:


Myth 1: People at a normal weight cannot develop type 2 diabetes.

Yes, you can get diabetes even if you are at a normal weight.

If you are overweight, it’s harder to produce enough insulin needed in the body; that’s why being overweight is a risk factor. But diabetes can also happen if there is a problem at the site where insulin is received in the cell. Or there could be a transport problem, something going wrong in moving glucose molecules from the bloodstream to the cell’s receptor site. And that can happen even with people at a normal weight.


A related myth: All obese people will develop type 2 diabetes.

Weight is not the only risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Many obese people never develop the disease. Some people with diabetes are at a normal weight or just slightly overweight.

It’s important to learn your own blood glucose numbers and create healthy habits, to prevent or manage diabetes. The older you are, the greater chance you have to develop diabetes. The disease runs in some families, another risk factor. And certain cultures are more prone to developing diabetes.


Myth 2: A prediabetes diagnosis is no big deal.

People might think that the “pre” in front of  “diabetes” makes the diagnosis less attention-grabbing. Don’t let that idea convince you to ignore your blood sugar. Someone with prediabetes (elevated blood sugar that’s not as high as blood sugar levels in full-blown diabetes) might feel fine. Learn your blood sugar levels and see a doctor if they are higher than normal.

Improving your diet and getting regular exercise are important steps in preventing pre diabetes from worsening into diabetes.

Regular moderate activity, such as walking, is recommended for 150 minutes a week. That can be broken up into 10-minute sessions three times a day. “It’s not about getting to your ideal body weight to see benefits,” Boswell King said. “A 10- to 15-pound weight loss for someone weighing 200 pounds really makes a difference.”


Myth 3: A sweet tooth causes diabetes.

Some patients feel guilty. “They think, ‘Oh, I ate a lot of sugary foods’ and think that somehow that resulted in diagnosis,” said Boswell King. “Diabetes is not like a cause and effect.”

It is true that most of those sugary foods don’t have many nutritional benefits, just calories that can add weight, which plays into risk.

“Having a sweet tooth doesn’t cause diabetes,” she said. “I tell patients that they’re being harsh with themselves if that’s what they’re thinking.”


Myth 4: People with diabetes must never eat sweets or carbs.

A person with diabetes can eat any food that a person without diabetes can eat. And just like everyone else, an occasional sweet treat may fit into a healthy eating plan.

Everyone’s diet requires carbohydrates. People with diabetes might opt for whole-grain, high-fiber starches within the limits they’ve discussed with their dietitians. That includes fruit. So while there are no banned foods, a person with diabetes learns to pay attention to the number of carbs per meal or snack, to keep blood glucose controlled.

For additional information, Boswell King suggests the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the American Diabetes Association.

To schedule an appointment at the Eskind Diabetes Center, call 615-343-8332 for adult care and 615-322-7842 for children’s care.