Diabetes is an incredibly common disease — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in ten Americans have it. But even though many people know of diabetes (and have loved ones impacted by it), there are a lot of misconceptions about the condition.
One question that stems from misinformation is: Can you get diabetes from eating too much sugar?
Let’s look at the correct answer.
Diabetes and Sugar: The Facts
You might have heard that eating too much sugar can lead to diabetes. But it’s not that simple.
The truth is that diabetes results from too much sugar in the blood:
- Your pancreas creates insulin, the hormone that controls the amount of sugar in your blood.
- Insulin then “unlocks” your cells to move sugar from the blood into the cells.
- But when someone has diabetes, that sugar is not able to move into the cells. Blood sugar — or blood glucose — rises and can damage other organs.
Extra sugar in the blood happens because there’s an issue with insulin’s ability to control blood sugar.
In the words of endocrinologist Ayushi Dixit, “type 2 diabetes, the most common form, is a combination of insulin resistance and pancreatic failure.” So, it’s not all about eating too much sugar.
How Sugar Intake Might Contribute to Diabetes
While eating sugar does not directly lead to diabetes, there are some important connections.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), two of the most common risks for type 2 diabetes are being overweight or obese and physically inactive. Here’s why:
- Carrying extra weight can cause insulin resistance.
- In addition, extra fat in the belly area is linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Physical inactivity can also contribute to weight gain, especially when combined with an unbalanced diet rich in sugary foods.
Eating an excess of sugars (and other forms of calories) can lead to unhealthy levels of weight gain, which contributes to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
While lifestyle choices and weight are not the only reasons someone can develop type 2 diabetes, they are factors to watch carefully.
Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diabetes
We know lifestyle choices can contribute to the risk of type 2 diabetes, but the story is different with type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes happens when the body’s immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Experts are not exactly sure what causes type 1 diabetes, and we don’t know of ways to prevent it as we do with type 2.
Is There a Way to Prevent Developing Diabetes?
Thankfully, knowledge about what causes type 2 diabetes can help us to prevent it. While we know that eating too much sugar doesn’t directly cause diabetes, eating excess sugar doesn’t help prevent the disease either.
Lifestyle changes can go a long way in preventing diabetes, even if you’re at high risk. (And prediabetes can even be reversed with healthy choices.)
Here are some tips for preventing type 2 diabetes:
- Eat high-nutrient foods most of the time. Focus on more whole foods with nutrients and fiber, such as fruits, veggies, healthy fats, whole grains, and lean proteins. Eat fewer foods with saturated fats, empty sugars, and empty calories.
- Get more active. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. It can be as simple as walking.
- Manage your weight loss realistically. Ideally, you want to lose excess weight and keep it off. That means finding a healthy lifestyle that will work for you long-term. Even losing 10-15 pounds can make an enormous difference in preventing and managing diabetes.
The Bottom Line
Diabetes is not as simple as someone eating too much sugar. We have to look at the wider picture of unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices, then encourage everyone to make balanced choices that lower the risk of developing this disease.