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Diabetes worldwide: The facts vs the myths

PUBLISHED: 13 November 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 4 October 2023

Diabetes is a very common medical condition, with more and more people living with it every year. In 20171, it was estimated that globally, 1 in 2 people with diabetes were undiagnosed. That means that there are potentially around 212 million people walking around unaware that they have the condition. It’s a contributor to the leading cause of death worldwide, yet there’s a surprising amount that many of us don’t know about it.

Diabetes around the world

Although our knowledge of how we treat and prevent diabetes is improving, rates have still increased more dramatically than expected. In 20172, 425 million people were living with diabetes, and this figure is expected to rise to a staggering 629 million worldwide by 2045. The good news is, whilst this may be the case if we continue to live the way we are now, hooked by convenience and less healthy lifestyle choices, there are things we can all do to reduce our risks of developing type 2 diabetes. 

First thing’s first, how well do we understand diabetes? We’ve looked at some of the most common myths and misconceptions that people have about diabetes to get us started with the facts…

Thomas Rothwell image

Written by Thomas Rothwell

Tom is a qualified sports nutritionist and mental health first aider. 

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Myth 1:  "A healthy diet can prevent type 2 diabetes" 

If you look at the definition of ‘diet’ it’s simply defined as ‘the kinds of food that a person habitually eats’. More recently however, the word ‘diet’ is perceived to be a way of eating or a diet plan that restricts certain foods or food groups with a view to lose weight, whether that’s for body image or for medical reasons. 

There is no one perfect diet that completely prevents diabetes. For example, you can have a diet rich in ‘healthy foods’, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains, but if these healthy foods are increasing your calorie intake, causing you to gain weight, then your diabetes risk will increase.

When looking at our diabetes risk, it really is multifactorial. Yes, diet is important to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, but there are also other risk factors to consider, such as:

  • how active or sedentary we are 
  • the amount of fat we carry around our middles
  • sleep quality and quantity
  • how stressed we are
  • how much alcohol we drink
  • our genetics 

Thomas Rothwell
, physiologist and nutritionist, says: 
“Make sure that the calories you’re eating don’t exceed your recommended calorie allowance for the day, and opt for whole unprocessed produce where possible“.

Myth 2: "Diabetes only affects people who are overweight" 

For many of us, when we think of someone with type 2 diabetes, we typically picture someone who is overweight, but this isn’t always the case. Overweight people are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but as we’ve seen above, type 2 diabetes is multifactorial. It’s possible, and common, for people who are a healthy weight to develop type 2 diabetes, because they fall under the category of some of the other risk factors, such as having high stress levels, not getting enough sleep and their genetics. 

Georgina Camfield, physiologist and nutritionist says: 
“If we don’t get enough quality sleep, the hormone which manages blood sugar (insulin) isn’t produced, or is produced but doesn’t work properly - and that’s a problem. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies produce a stress hormone (cortisol), and that can limit insulin production in our bodies, which means our blood sugars aren’t processed properly.”

Georgina Camfield image

Written by Georgina Camfield

Georgina is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) and a qualified fitness instructor.  

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Myth 3: "Diabetes can be cured"

Type 2 diabetes cannot be ‘cured’; however, it can be put into ‘remission’. This means that if you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, there is a possibility that with positive lifestyle changes, your body won’t require diabetes medication to manage its blood sugars. In time your blood sugars could be reduced back to a healthier level, taking you out of the danger zone. This doesn’t always mean you’re in the clear though - signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes can return if these lifestyle changes are not maintained, so it’s important to make these adjustments as long-term lifestyle changes.

Type 1 diabetes cannot currently be cured, but can be managed efficiently through medication. Researchers are working on developing and testing treatments called immunotherapies, with the hope that one day they might be able to find a cure.

Myth 4: "If you have diabetes, you shouldn’t eat sugary foods"

It’s nearly impossible to lead a diet these days that is completely free of sugars (natural or otherwise), so it would be difficult to completely avoid sugar altogether. Rather than avoiding these foods, you make them part of a considered, balanced diet. 

If you have diabetes, excessive sugar intake can make some of the symptoms worse as it’s harder for the body to control blood sugar levels.  Where you can, try to make healthier, more considered choices about what you eat and drink. We all enjoy a treat now and again, and having diabetes shouldn’t hold you back – it just means you’ll need to think twice about just how much sugar you’re actually consuming.

Georgina says: 
“It’s recommended that added sugar should make up less than 5% of our total food intake across the day to have positive effects on our health. Limit sugary snacks and drinks, instead swapping them for water, fresh fruit and raw vegetables.”  

Myth 5: "The symptoms of diabetes are different in men and women, and in adults and children"

There are many different symptoms of diabetes; however, it’s important to remember that everyone is different. Some people may experience no symptoms at all, whilst others may have one or a number of the different symptoms. Although there are a few differences, which we’ll cover off a bit later, the symptoms, generally, are the same between adults and children, and don’t differ too much between men and women.  

The most common symptoms are:

Type 1 diabetes

  • increased thirst 
  • frequent urination
  • increased appetite
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • fruity smell or taste on the breath
  • blurred vision

Type 2 diabetes

  • frequent urination
  • increased thirst
  • tiredness
  • weight loss
  • yeast infections
  • slow healing of cuts and wounds
  • blurred vision

The above symptoms are generally the same between men and women, but men may also experience erectile dysfunction, low testosterone or decreased libido.

Signs can be harder to spot with children, but the most common things to look out for are frequent urination/bed wetting, increased thirst, tiredness or weight loss.

Myth 6: "If your parents or grandparents have diabetes, you’ll develop it too."  

When we look at the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, there are many different risk factors. Some of these risk factors are out of our control (ethnicity, family history and age); however there are many more factors that we can control (weight, stress levels, how active we are and our sleep quality). So, whilst our risk can be slightly increased by our family history and our genetics, there are many things that we can do to help prevent the development of Type 2 Diabetes. 

Type 1 diabetes is a little different; the exact cause of it is unknown, and the risk of developing it is often less predictable than Type 2. It’s believed that genetic factors may play a role, along with exposure to certain viruses which might trigger an attack on the cells in the pancreas.

You could be at higher risk of developing diabetes if it’s in your family history, but it’s not a guarantee.

We asked the experts we work with to bring you our Virtual Doctor Service, to tell us more about what we can do to reduce our risk of developing type 2 diabetes: 

  • Look after your heart by stopping smoking and trying to stay active 
  • Cut down on how much alcohol you drink
  • Try to eat a more ‘Mediterranean’ diet which includes olive oil, unsalted nuts and plenty of vegetables
  • Lose 5-10% of your body weight if you’re overweight, and try to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day
  • Set goals and change one thing at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.

If you’re an AXA – Global Healthcare customer don’t forget about your virtual doctor service. If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms or have any medical questions or concerns, the team of doctors will be able to help. You can find out more about the Virtual Doctor Service and how it could help you, here

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.