Debunking Diabetes Myths

With World Diabetes Day yesterday, it’s a good time to talk about blood sugar levels, diet and healthy living tips. Since the 1970’s the global epidemic of diabetes has been on a steep upward trajectory. But today the jury is out; diabetes is not so much a genetic disorder as it is a lifestyle disorder. We now know that changing our habits will change our health.

In South Africa today diabetes is still on the rise. In commemoration of World Diabetes Day (14 November) ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) spokesperson and registered dietitian and author of “The Complete Nutritional Solutions to Diabetes,” Ria Catsicas, guides us through a few common misconceptions’ around the diabetes dilemma.

Myth 1: Diabetics Have To Eat ‘Special’ Food


The only thing special about a diabetic diet is that it is real food. Eliminating the culprits that trigger diabetes in the first place is the way back to health. If we don’t want our family to suffer this fate, it’s important to clear the junk from the fridge and cupboards and start eating whole foods. Buying chicken that looks like a chicken and vegetables that still have soil on their roots is the way forward. This is why Catsicas says, “People with diabetes do not have to follow a ‘special’ diet. Everyone should avoid eating processed foods. Healthy eating is good for all of us as it is essential for supporting our immune systems and protecting us against disease, as well as to ensure that we have optimal energy levels throughout the day.”

Myth 2: Diabetic Food is More Expensive

Today the healthy food industry is being flooded with so called ‘healthy’ foods, yet many are just as processed as junk food. If it says ‘safe for diabetics’ on it, it doesn’t mean that you need it or that it is necessarily healthy for you. “It is not necessary to buy expensive foods marketed to diabetics. Healthy eating can be economical, and is often cheaper than buying unhealthy treats. Buying fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season is certainly cheaper than buying processed fruit juices and soft drinks. If you eat fruits and salads as snacks and as dessert, you can save on the money you would have spent on buying biscuits, rusks, cakes, desserts, sweets and potato crisps. A tasty bean curry is, for instance, a much cheaper meal than a red meat alternative.”

Myth 3: Sugar is the Only Cause of Diabetes

It’s not just sugar that triggers diabetes. There are many other contributing factors hidden in processed foods that can disrupt our blood sugar and insulin level to the point of diabetes alert. “A person’s complete diet must be taken into account. A diet that is characterized by the high intake of sugar, such as soft drinks, chocolates and sweets; as well as a high intake of refined starches, such as white or brown bread, pap, fast foods, biscuits, rusks and potato fries; while also poor in healthy foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, can contribute to the development of diabetes.”

unhealthy food

Myth 4: Diabetics Can’t Eat Any Carbohydrate Foods

Everyone needs vegetables and yes all veggies have some level of carbohydrates in, but they are good carbohydrates that help to sustain your blood glucose level. “Not all carbohydrates are unhealthy. Both the type and the amount of carbohydrate foods you eat at a meal will affect your blood glucose levels afterwards. Therefore, for optimal blood glucose control it is important to control the quantity, and be aware of the type of carbohydrates you are going to eat. Too much fruit can contribute to an increase in blood glucose levels. However, portion size is important. It is recommended that you consult your dietitian to calculate the amount of fruit that you should include in your daily diet. Research has also shown that the consistency of your carbohydrate intake from day-to-day can help to optimize blood glucose control.” A good trick to remember is the more you cook your vegetables, such as roasting, the higher the carbohydrate content and the lower the nutrient content.

Myth 5: A High Fat Diet is the Only Solution to Diabetes

There is no research to date that shows a high fat diet is a healthier form of weight loss or better at improving blood glucose control than a Mediterranean diet. “The restriction of any food group, whether it is carbohydrates or fats or proteins can contribute to weight loss. Research has shown that diets promoting extreme macronutrient manipulation, whether it is carbohydrates or fats or proteins actually lessen people’s adherence to the eating plan. It is much wiser for people with diabetes to develop sustainable healthy eating habits that can easily be incorporated into lifestyle for the long term. To facilitate adherence, a dietitian would take into consideration the individual’s cultural preferences; their budget constraints; their age and gender; the logistics of their daily life, such as their work circumstances or travel requirements; as well as their weight status, the medications they use and their activity levels.”

Red meat

Myth 6: There is No Danger in Eating High Saturated Fat

Today there is much confusion about what a healthy diet really is. Even though we now know that butter is healthier than margarine, that doesn’t mean eating a pound of butter a day is healthy. “It is well-established that a high intake of saturated fats can contribute to increased LDL cholesterol levels in some individuals. While it has not been proven is that increased LDL cholesterol levels contribute directly to cardiac events, this is because there are NUMEROUS compounding factors that would cause a heart attack. Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory condition and a high intake of saturated fats in a nutrient poor diet can aggravate inflammation. It has been shown that a high saturated fat intake in a nutrient poor diet can also contribute to decreased sensitivity of the body cells to the action of insulin.”

Myth 7: If I Don’t Eat Carbohydrates I Can Drop My Medication

Being on any medication holds the body in a certain stasis. Therefore it can be dangerous to just suddenly come off medication as this can throw your whole biochemical composition into chaos. “It has been established that when diabetes is diagnosed most individuals would have already lost 50% of the insulin-producing capacity of the Beta cells in the pancreas. Therefore, the optimal way to manage diabetes is to follow a healthy diet; to lose weight if overweight; to engage in physical activity, such as walking three to five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes at a time; and, to take appropriate medication on your doctor’s advice.” Integrative Medicine Doctors are well versed in the healing process of diabetes. They can often help to improve nutrition, overall health and insulin levels, and if appropriate, slowly wean you off medication.


Myth 8: If My Parents had Diabetes I Will Get It

“If you have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, you have all the reason you need to embrace a healthy lifestyle. While genetics may only contribute 30 to 40% to the development of any condition, including diabetes, environmental and lifestyle factors may have a 60 to 70% impact. If you maintain a healthy body weight, stick to a healthy eating plan, manage your stress and get regular physical exercises, you have a very good chance of not developing diabetes.”

Myth 9: Diabetics Can’t Exercise

“This is not true at all. Diabetes is a compelling reason to exercise regularly as physical activity plays a very important role in lowering blood glucose levels. Exercise also predisposes your body cells to being more sensitive to insulin, and of course, it helps to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. If you use insulin it is important to check your blood glucose levels before and after physical activity. If you get results below 6 m mol/l it is recommended that you lower your insulin dose or eat a healthy snack to prevent a hypoglycemic attack during or after exercise.”

Free ADSA diabetes recipes