This week is Diabetes Week, which is designed to raise awareness of this increasingly common condition. There are in fact two types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2, but the latter is by far the most common. So what is Type 2 diabetes and what are the symptoms and risk factors?
What is diabetes?
Put simply, someone with the condition has an excess of glucose and a deficiency in functioning insulin. Since insulin is the hormone that takes excess glucose out of the body, the net result of this imbalance is a high blood glucose level. And in the long term that can have serious consequences, including heart disease, an increased risk of thrombosis or stroke, kidney disease, and nerve and eye damage.
The symptoms of diabetes
Here are some of the symptoms, but be aware that many people have no symptoms or do not link them to diabetes:
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive hunger and carbohydrate or sugar cravings
- Frequent urination
- Unusual changes in weight (either way)
- Increased tiredness
- Blurred vision
- Itchy skin or cuts and sores that take a long time to heal
The road to developing diabetes
Although you’ll often read that the most common risk factors for developing Type 2 diabetes are being overweight or having a large waist, being aged over 40 (or over 25 for black and South-Asian people), and having a close relative with diabetes, there are in fact a number of diet and lifestyle factors that can be contributory factors. These include:
- Consuming too much sugar and sugary drinks This doesn’t just mean sugar. It includes honey, raisins, sweets, pastries, even bananas, dates and grapes, which contain sugars that are released quickly in the blood, hence they’re called ‘fast-releasing’. Particularly bad are drinks sweetened with glucose or high-fructose corn syrup – that includes most fizzy drinks.
- Consuming too many refined carbs This includes bread, cereals, pastries, pasta and white rice. Although these are all obviously worse if you choose the white, refined variety, there’s an awful lot of processed cereals and bread that are technically ‘brown’ or claim to contain ‘wholegrain’ but are actually still high in ‘fast-releasing’ sugars. Refined carbs are also devoid of the important mineral chromium. Often, people who try to follow a low-fat diet, choosing foods labelled as low fat, unfortunately end up eating more carbohydrates instead.
- Inactivity If you neither exercise nor are particularly active at home or at work, this increases your risk of both weight gain and diabetes.
- Chronic stress and poor sleep Both of these raise the adrenal hormone cortisol, which makes you more insulin resistant, and it can also contribute to overeating.
- Gaining weight, especially around your middle Excess blood sugar is dumped by insulin into the liver, which then converts it into fat, stored most easily around your middle. So, if you are gaining inches around your girth that’s a bad sign.
- Smoking This is also an independent risk factor for diabetes according to Diabetes UK.
- Not eating enough vegetables and fruit High consumers of vegetables and fruit (especially colder-climate fruits like apples, pears and plums, which are naturally lower in fruit sugars), take in a substantial amount of antioxidant vitamins, especially vitamin C, and so cut their risk of diabetes.
- Not eating enough fish A high intake of omega-3 fats, found particularly in oily fish, helps protect you from diabetes.
The positive take-away message from this is that, through addressing the lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes, there is much we can do to reduce our chances of developing the condition.
If you are concerned that you may have diabetes, see your GP, who will test you for the condition.
Extract taken from Say No to Diabetes by Patrick Holford.