A diagnosis of diabetes can be life-changing. It can also be confusing: is diabetes really caused by eating too much sugar? And what does a diabetes diagnosis mean for your diet? Our Senior Dietitian replaces some common myths with the facts.
Myth 1: You need special foods if you have diabetes
Foods like chocolate, cakes and biscuits marketed towards people with diabetes may be sugar-free, but this doesn’t make them a good choice. They are often still high in saturated fat and calories and the sweetener used can have a laxative effect if too much is eaten.
These products often also come at a price premium. Better to save your money and have small amounts of the standard products occasionally instead.
Myth 2: People with diabetes shouldn’t eat fruit
Fruit is a healthy choice and along with vegetables, should form a large part of a healthy balanced diet. Fruit is higher in natural sugars than vegetables, but is still lower in sugar than cakes, biscuits and sweets, and it contains other nutrients and fibre.
If your blood glucose levels are high, it’s unlikely that it’s the fruit in your diet that is the problem. Look at other sources of sugar in your diet before you cut down on fruit.
Myth 3: Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar
Type 1 diabetes isn’t caused by diet or lifestyle choices. It happens when the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system.
It’s also not true to say that type 2 diabetes is caused by sugar. However, the chances of developing this type of diabetes are greater if you are overweight or obese. A high-sugar diet is often a high-calorie diet, and too many calories can lead to weight gain.
In the UK, on average we are eating more sugar than is recommended, so most of us could benefit from cutting down on sweet treats, choosing sugar-free drinks and checking ingredients lists for added sugars.
Myth 4: Type 2 diabetes is ‘mild’ diabetes
Even if you don’t have to take medication to control it, Type 2 diabetes is not a mild form of diabetes. It’s important to control your condition well to avoid developing complications, which can include sight loss and even amputation as well as an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Myth 5: You can’t eat any sweets if you have diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes and you eat a lot of sugary foods, it will make it difficult to control your blood sugar levels and your weight. This doesn’t mean that you have to exclude all sweet treats from your diet, but keep them to every now and then rather than every day.
Myth 6: People with diabetes have to follow a special diet
The diet for people with diabetes is the same as it is for everyone – a healthy, balanced diet. This includes plenty of fruit and vegetables as well as pulses, fish, eggs and lean meat and low-fat dairy.
Keep foods like cakes, biscuits and sweets to just small amounts and aim to stick to sugar free drinks like water and unsweetened tea or coffee.
- Read more about diet and diabetes.
Myth 7: You can’t drink alcohol if you have diabetes
It’s still possible to drink alcohol if you have diabetes, but it’s important to stay within the recommendations of no more than 14 units a week. If you do drink this much, make sure that you have some alcohol-free days in the week too.
If you are trying to lose weight then remember that alcoholic drinks can add a lot of calories to the diet as well as stimulating your appetite and lowering inhibitions, making it harder to stick to healthy eating plans.
Certain medications for diabetes (insulin or sulphonylureas) can mean you are more likely to have a hypo if you drink alcohol, and this effect can continue for up to 24 hours after you have been drinking, so make sure you are prepared and that the people who are with you are aware of this.
- Take our quiz to test your knowledge of calories in alcoholic drinks.
Myth 8: Avoiding sugar is the most important thing if you have diabetes
Nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables and milk and dairy foods will come with natural sugars so there are benefits to including those in your diet.
The sugary foods worth avoiding are the ones that come with few nutrients, other than calories. These are foods like sweets and sugary drinks as well as fatty and sugary foods like cakes, biscuits and chocolate.
Sugar can also be added to foods that are otherwise nutritious – think of sugar-coated cereals, milk drinks and yoghurts as well as fruit tinned in syrup.
Choose sugar-free or no-added-sugar options to benefit from the nutrients without the extra sugar.
- Read about Lyn’s experience with type 2 diabetes.
- Find out more about our success with diabetes research.