It’s strongly linked to what you eat and how much you
exercise, can eventually lead to blindness, heart disease and kidney failure,
and is the one of the fastest growing chronic conditions in the world.
It’s type 2 diabetes, and it affects over 463 million adults
Most of us know someone with type 2 diabetes. It’s the most
common type of diabetes, representing 85 to 90 per cent of all cases. The other
two types are type 1 – an autoimmune disease which often starts in childhood or
early adulthood and is not linked to lifestyle – and gestational diabetes,
which affects pregnant women.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a condition where your body cannot
regulate blood sugar levels properly. After you’ve eaten a meal it’s normal for
blood glucose levels to rise. When they do, your pancreas releases a hormone
called insulin, which acts like a key to let the glucose pass from your
bloodstream into your body’s cells, producing energy.
If you have type 2 diabetes, you either don’t produce enough
insulin or it’s not doing its job properly. This means glucose doesn’t easily
move into your body’s cells, and your blood glucose levels stay too high for
too long. It’s these prolonged high blood glucose levels that can cause damage
to blood vessels throughout the body, including your eyes, kidneys and
extremities like your feet.
Diabetes is a complex disease, and there are a number of
common misunderstandings surrounding it.
1. You can’t reverse type 2 diabetes
We used to think that a diagnosis
of type 2 diabetes meant that you had it for life, but studies have now shown
otherwise. There have been some new data that shows that you can reverse type 2
One UK study published in The
Lancet in 2019 put people diagnosed with diabetes within the last six years
on a strict calorie-controlled meal replacement program.
“They were able to show that
after a year, almost 50 per cent of participants were able to reverse their
diabetes and went back to normal glucose levels without medication,” explains
When it comes to preventing and
treating diabetes, losing weight is the most effective strategy, says Dr
Hocking. But if you find this difficult, studies show that losing as little as
five per cent of your body weight can make a significant difference, as does
increasing exercise and improving your diet – whether you lose weight or not.
2. Sugar causes diabetes
Diabetes is a condition where
blood sugar levels are too high, so it can be easy to think that eating too
much sugar is the cause. But this is a very simplistic message, says nutrition
scientist Dr Joanna McMillan. “It’s not that sugar causes diabetes,” she
explains. “It’s true we eat too much sugar, but we also have too much processed
food and too many kilojoules. Rather than blaming one single dietary aspect
like sugar, we should look at the dietary patterns of the foods we consume.”
Sugar is found naturally in fruit
and vegetables (as fructose) and diary foods (as lactose). But it’s also added
to food and drink by food manufacturers, and it’s this added sugar – found in
confectionary, cakes, biscuits, fruit juices, soft drinks, smoothies, syrups
and honey – that we need to cut down on. That’s because it’s easy to
over-consume, often comes in products also high in fat and other refined
carbohydrates, and can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases your risk
If you have diabetes, aim to eat
plenty of plant foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and
seeds, and fewer highly processed foods and refined carbs (sugar, white bread,
products made from white flour, white rice and pasta). For tailored advice on
what to eat, talk to your doctor who may refer you to a dietitian or other
3. You can’t exercise if you have diabetes
Exercise is beneficial for
everyone, whether or not they have diabetes. This myth probably came about
because people with type 1 diabetes have to be vigilant about balancing their
insulin doses with food and activity, to avoid blood sugar going too high or
But exercise is key to staying
healthy whatever type of diabetes you have. It can also help prevent and manage
type 2 diabetes. Regular physical activity can:
- Help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Help lower blood pressure and reduce your risk
of heart disease.
- Reduce stress.
- Increase your insulin sensitivity. Resistance or
strength training is particularly effective at improving your body’s ability to use insulin and process glucose. The ability of your muscles to store glucose increases
with your strength, making your body better able to regulate its blood glucose
For good health, you should aim for 30 minutes of exercise
every day, and plan to do two sessions of strength or resistance training each
week. This can be done at home using your body weight, free weights, or
resistance bands, or at a gym.