A diabetes expert reveals the main myths about type 2 diabetes and how it’s possible to reverse it, cutting your coronavirus risk.
Diabetes is said to be a risk factor for Covid-19 – so understand more about the condition here to protect your health…
Myth one: It’s caused by obesity
Not everyone who has type 2 (T2) diabetes is obese. In fact, only half of those who have it are in the obese range. ‘There are 10% in the normal range,’ says Professor Roy Taylor, a leading diabetes expert. ‘And four out of 10 people are in the overweight range.’
Research by him and his team at Newcastle University suggests that T2 diabetes is caused, not by obesity specifically, but by the storage of too much fat for your body, particularly in your liver and pancreas, affecting their ability to help regulate the levels of sugar in your blood.
When your body takes on more calories than it burns, it stores them as fat. First, safely, under the skin. Then, less safely, in your liver and pancreas.‘All it takes is half a gram of extra fat inside the pancreas,’ says Professor Taylor.
‘There’s a bit of the luck of the draw mixed in because, if a person’s insulin-producing cells are not susceptible to fat excess, then they’re unlikely to get type 2 diabetes. If they are, then they will.’
Myth Two: It’s a lifelong disease
That’s what the experts used to think, but now they agree it’s reversible, says Professor Taylor. ‘It’s possible to escape and that’s great news because almost everybody will have been told that this is a life sentence.’
But you need to act fast because the longer you have T2 diabetes, the more difficult it becomes to reverse. ‘It’s very reversible in the first few years,’ says Professor Taylor. ‘After that, it starts getting less and less likely that it will reverse.
‘It’s never too late, though. I have had two people who have had it for 24 years and reversed it. But they’re unusual.’
The key is weight loss. ‘Usually about 10-15% of your body weight,’ says Professor Taylor. Consult your doctor about what is best for you.
If you can’t reverse your diabetes, there are ways of managing it by healthier eating, being more active and losing some weight. And there is medication to bring your blood-sugar levels down to a safe level too.
Myth Three: It’s not serious like cancer and heart disease
Every week more than 500 people with diabetes die prematurely. It also causes 169 amputations, 680 strokes, 530 heart attacks and 2,000 cases of heart failure. So yes, it’s potentially very serious.
It’s also one of the health problems associated with an increased risk of serious complications from Covid-19 – because when fighting a coronavirus, your body releases stored glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream and your body struggles to produce the insulin needed to cope.
Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with diabetes. It affects an estimated 4.7 million people, most of them (90%) with T2 diabetes, which affects the ability of your pancreas to make enough insulin (or it doesn’t work properly) to deal with the glucose in your blood. High levels of which, over time, can seriously damage your heart, eyes, feet and kidneys.
Most people (about 60%) don’t have symptoms, so the only way you know is through a blood glucose test. Ask your GP for one if you’re concerned. Signs to watch for are tiredness, excessive thirst and needing to wee a lot.
Myth Four: You can’t eat sugar
It’s not sugary food per se that causes the problem. ‘The nature of your
diet is much less important when it comes to T2 diabetes than the total amount of energy going in,’ says Professor Taylor.
‘Our bodies are wonderful machines and will convert the food you eat into the fuel that your body needs. So if you eat a lot of sugar, it’s going to end up as fat if you don’t burn it off.
‘The thing about sugar is that you can eat a large amount of it and it won’t satisfy your appetite, so you’re likely to consume many more calories than you can burn off – and it’s that fat stored in unsafe places that cause the mischief.’
Speak to a dietitian about eating a healthy, balanced diet, with a variety of foods from each of the main food groups. Avoid eating too much sugar or carbohydrates which can easily lead to weight gain.
Myth Five: You must exercise more
Regular activity can help you maintain a healthy weight – and has numerous other health benefits, but upping your activity levels when trying to lose quite a bit of weight is probably not a good idea at first, says Professor Taylor.
‘Increased activity has a terrible stimulatory effect on appetite and makes weight loss almost impossible to achieve,’ he says. Lose the weight first through diet, then up your activity levels. ‘People will also need to realise that they need to eat less than they have habitually done in the past.’
You don’t need to be sporty to help keep your weight healthy and your diabetes under control – every step counts. Just make sure you move more during your day. Have a daily walk and go to places on foot. Doing chores, such as housework, gardening and washing the car, can all provide a great workout.
Find out more from charity Diabetes UK on 0345 123 2399 or at diabetes.org.uk.
Life Without Diabetes (£9.99, Short Books) by Professor Roy Taylor is available now. All proceeds from the book go to the charity Diabetes UK.