When people learn that I have diabetes, they often express surprise. “You aren’t overweight,” they say, giving me a once-over with their eyes. “I’ve never seen you eat sugar,” they offer, as if eating Snickers bars or Oreo cookies translates into having a chronic disease. “You look so healthy,” they tell me. “Shouldn’t you look sicker?”
At this point, as someone who has weathered these comments and monitored my type 2 diabetes for so many years, none of these comments shocked me. Yes, I’m at a healthy weight for my height and age. Who even eats endless Snickers or Oreo cookies anymore? As for my healthy glow, I recently returned from a beach week with a bit of a tan.
This isn’t to chastise people and their misperceptions about how a person with type 2 should look and act. It’s more to remind you that relatives, friends, and acquaintances can be very wrong about why and how you got diabetes, and that such opinions should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
What are these misconceptions? Well, here are a few:
“You must have the diabetes gene.”
Not true: There is no such thing. Like depression, diabetes can run in families, spurred by a genetic tendency. In my case, my father had diabetes, but simply having a parent or a grandparent with type 2 doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get the disease. Other environmental factors, ranging from excess pounds to inactivity to how fat is distributed in your body can, unfortunately, trigger this genetic vulnerability.
“Overweight people always have type 2 diabetes.”
Wrong again. Plenty of overweight and obese people don’t get diabetes. Yet, many do. A lot depends on age, body type, and even nationality or ethnicity, with Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian people, and Pacific Islanders more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than whites. Excess weight puts you at added risk, but slender and even skinny folks have type 2 diabetes, too.
“You gave yourself diabetes by eating too much sugar.”
No, and no. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces too little insulin, a hormone that allows the body to process glucose as fuel. While eating sugar can add empty calories to your diet that can translate into extra pounds, it doesn’t cause diabetes. In any case, no one ever is to blame for having a chronic disease.
“You don’t look sick.”
I’m never certain how to approach this. Do they think I’m lying about having type 2 diabetes? “You got me!” I want to cry. But to be honest, these people have a point: Everything about having diabetes, at least in the early or controlled stages, is going on inside. The early symptoms are invisible: fatigue, intense thirst, and running to the bathroom more than you have in the past. In truth, the symptoms are so vague that even if you think something is off – and particularly if you have the genetic tendency in your family – it’s worth a trip to the doctor to check it out. The earlier you catch type 2 diabetes, the better chance you have of avoiding later and more serious complications.
The message here is twofold: If you do have a family history of type 2 or had gestational diabetes when you were pregnant, stay alert. Eat a balanced diet, try not to gain extra pounds, exercise, and get regular checkups that include a fasting blood sugar and maybe even an A1c.
Second, if well-meaning friends or acquaintances imply that you gave yourself diabetes, pass them this blog and hope that in the future, better informed, they’ll be able to respond to you with greater empathy.
Photo Credit: Raphye Alexius / Image Source via Getty Images
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