Understanding Type 2 Diabetes
Just over 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, and approximately 1 in 3 have prediabetes. When you think of diabetes, you may think of sugar-free candies and insulin injections. But what is diabetes? In this article I’m going to explain what type 2 diabetes is (type 1 is autoimmune and cannot be prevented), who is most at risk for type 2 diabetes, and the complications that can develop if it’s not managed properly. Understanding Type 2 diabetes is the first step towards prevention or management.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which there is too much sugar (glucose) hanging out in the blood. Your cells need glucose to function – it’s their primary source of energy (cells functioning = you functioning). To make sure the glucose in your food ends up in your cells, an organ in your body called the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin “unlocks” cells so that they can let in glucose. The more glucose in the blood, the more insulin the body needs to produce to make sure cells get their energy.
When someone has type 2 diabetes, their cells will either not respond well enough to insulin, often as a result of too much fat in the cell, and/or their pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Both scenarios result in the cells not taking up enough sugar in the blood. (And remember, cells functioning = you functioning.) This is a double whammy for cell function, as too much glucose in the blood also damages blood vessels. Understanding the insulin-glucose relationship is key to understanding type 2 diabetes.
Fun Fact: “Glucose” doesn’t necessarily mean “sugar”
I’m especially passionate about diabetes education and understanding diabetes because type 2 diabetes runs strongly in my family. It’s one of the main reasons I took an interest in nutrition from such a young age. Yet in all my research, I’ve never once seen an article about diabetes make the distinction between “glucose” and “sugar.”
This is an important difference to understand.
Quick science lesson: Sucrose (we know this as table sugar) is made up of two different molecules: glucose and fructose. When you eat sugar, glucose travels to your blood, while fructose goes to your liver to be metabolized. The liver turns excess fructose into fat called triglycerides. Many people trying to avoid type 2 diabetes, or people who already have it and are trying to manage it, do their best to avoid foods that contain sugar.
However, many foods that do not contain a gram of “sugar” can still be full of glucose. Refined starches such as bagels, white bread, breakfast cereals, pretzels, potato chips, white rice, white pasta, etc. are essentially long chains of glucose molecules. Without the fiber in whole food starches such as sprouted grain bread and quinoa, refined starches are broken down quickly. This means their glucose dumps into your bloodstream before your insulin can say, “Wait up, guys!”
Check out this post for some of my favorite complex carbohydrate options.
Understanding Risk Factors
The risk factors of developing type 2 diabetes include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a waist circumference of over 40 inches if you are a man or over 35 inches if you are a woman
- Are inactive
- Have a parent or sibling with it
- Are older than 45 (although type 2 diabetes is increasing at an alarming rate in children and teens due to rising obesity levels)
- Are African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino
- Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
- Have had gestational diabetes
There is a genetic component to developing type 2 diabetes, and certain risk factors like race and age are out of your control. However, understanding diabetes and making changes to your lifestyle accordingly can help prevent diabetes, or delay its onset.
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When Diabetes Isn’t Properly Managed
In a way, type 2 diabetes is a silent disease at first. Warning signs like increased hunger, increased thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision, and slow-healing wounds may not be apparent until the disease has progressed into later stages. Most people who are prediabetic have no idea unless a doctor tells them their blood glucose is outside a normal range.
However, early detection can halt diabetes in its tracks if lifestyle modifications are made, along with possibly taking medications like metformin. If you are prediabetic or diabetic talk with your doctor about a treatment plan that’s right for you. Also – stay tuned for my article on how to transform your lifestyle to give you the greatest fighting chance.
Without proper management, too much sugar in the blood can wreak havoc on your health. Over time, uncontrolled high blood sugar damages your blood vessels which supply oxygen and nutrients to your organs. Damage to blood vessels also affects how your nerves function. Damage to blood vessels doubles the likelihood of people with diabetes getting heart disease and stroke over someone who does not have diabetes. In severe cases, damage to blood vessels and/or nerve damage can lead to foot problems that require amputation.
Your eyes are also at risk if you have uncontrolled high blood sugar. In fact, diabetes puts you at higher risk for glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy. Some of these eye problems can lead to vision loss if not caught early, so make sure to get regular eye exams.
Finally, diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in the US. By controlling your blood sugar and blood pressure, you can greatly cut down the risk of developing kidney failure.
The Next Steps
Understanding type 2 diabetes, how cells function with glucose, and the insulin-glucose connection, and understanding how to manage certain risk factors can be a great line of defense against developing type 2 diabetes or having symptoms worsen quickly.
Stay tuned for my next article about ways to transform your lifestyle to give you the best chance in the fight against diabetes.
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About the author:
Sharone completed her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Education at Columbia University. Having overcome her own not-so-great relationship with food, she is passionate about helping others achieve their health and weight loss goals while finding balance. She enjoys hanging out with her two daughters, husband, giant dog, and cat, especially all together when shenanigans are involved. To learn more about scheduling a nutrition counseling session with Sharone, click here. For more tips and tricks for nutritious living, check out Sharone’s Instagram and Twitter.
Check out more of Sharone’s articles on the Shapa Blog here.