Does eating sugar cause diabetes?
Diabetes is a serious health issue that can cause a host of health problems, and it’s alarmingly common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 11% of Americans have diabetes, making it one of the most prevalent chronic health problems in adults. Around 23% of American adults with diabetes are undiagnosed and unaware they have it.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how your body uses glucose, a type of sugar that is an important energy source for your body. Your pancreas (a gland behind your stomach) makes insulin, which is the main hormone responsible for controlling blood sugar levels. Insulin helps glucose get into cells in your body to be used as fuel or stored for later use.
But what exactly is diabetes, and how does eating sugar affect it? Let’s look at the link between sugar and diabetes and whether eating sugar causes the disease.
Two Types of Diabetes
There are two types of diabetes, and they have different etiologies. Both types cause a rise in blood sugar, but they have different causes and treatments. Type 1 diabetes (around 10-15% of diabetes cases globally) is an autoimmune disease that destroys beta cells, cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. It’s not preventable and cannot be treated with medication.
People with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections since their pancreas produces no insulin; they can die without external sources of insulin. Type 2 diabetes (around 90-95% of diabetes cases globally) has a genetic component but is also lifestyle-related and therefore preventable.
Type 1 diabetes is not caused by eating sugar. It is caused by the immune system mistaking insulin-producing cells in the pancreas for foreign invaders and attacking them. This autoimmune reaction can happen at any age, but usually starts during childhood or adolescence.
What about type 2 diabetes? It occurs when cells in the muscle and liver become insulin resistant and can’t take up glucose as easily. In response, your pancreas must produce more insulin to get glucose into cells, a phenomenon known as insulin resistance. Many people with type 2 diabetes don’t need insulin therapy and can be treated with lifestyle and oral diabetic medications. However, some type 2 diabetics will eventually need insulin.
What Role Does Dietary Sugar Play in Diabetes?
Since type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, it is not caused by consuming too much sugar. However, sugar does play a role in type 2 diabetes, although an indirect one. The main cause of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance fueled by obesity. Since sugar contains empty calories, it indirectly contributes to obesity by causing weight gain and obesity.
There is a genetic component to type 2 diabetes, although lifestyle trumps genetics in determining whether you develop it. The more close relatives you have with type 2 diabetes, the higher your odds of developing it. If three or more of your first-degree relatives (parents or siblings) have type 2 diabetes, you have a 25% chance of developing it yourself. But unlike type 1 diabetes, maintaining healthy body weight and staying physically active can lower your risk even if you don’t have genetics on your side.
Know the Symptoms of Diabetes
Although the symptoms of diabetes can be subtle, you should be aware of what they are and see your doctor if you develop them.
• Frequent urination
• Unexplained weight loss or increased appetite
• Blurry vision or dry mouth
• Frequent infections
• Slow healing wounds
• Increased thirst
Type 2 Diabetes Responds to Lifestyle Changes
Mild type 2 diabetes and prediabetes may be managed through lifestyle changes alone. Lifestyle changes that healthcare providers recommend for managing type 2 diabetes include the following:
• Eliminate refined carbohydrates and replace them
with non-starchy vegetables and fruits.
• Avoid sugary drinks like soda.
• Take a brisk walk after meals to bring down blood
• Exercise for 150 minutes per week.
• Get enough quality sleep. Poor sleep and lack of sleep
can raise blood sugar.
• Manage stress for healthier blood glucose control.
• Work on losing weight if you’re overweight. Losing
as little as 10% of your body weight can help with
blood sugar control. (This applies to type 2 diabetes
• Watch alcohol consumption: Alcohol can cause
weight gain if consumed in large quantities, so limit
yourself if possible.
• Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions by
taking blood-sugar-lowering medications as
The Bottom Line
Understanding what diabetes is and how food affects it will help you make smart lifestyle changes that help prevent and manage the disease. Sugar is not a direct cause of type 2 diabetes but contains empty calories that lead to weight gain. Since insulin sensitivity decreases with increasing body weight, weight gain due to a high-sugar diet can increase blood sugars and elevate the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Eating a lower carbohydrate diet and selecting fiber-rich carbohydrate sources rather than refined ones help with blood sugar control and prevent weight gain. It’s important to understand what diabetes is and how food affects it, so you can make smart lifestyle changes to prevent or manage the disease.
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