Knowledge Is Not Only Power: It’s Also Powerful Medicine

It’s very likely that you, like most people, believe many myths about diabetes. If you do, you might actually be doing yourself harm. Learning the truth can empower you (as it did me) to make choices and take actions that increase the quality and length of your life.

That’s why I wrote my new book. “50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life: And The 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It” sets the record straight by exposing the most common myths that rule patients’ lives, among them “You have to be fat to get diabetes,” “Eating too many sweets causes diabetes,” “Insulin shots are painful,” “If I need to take insulin, I’m a failure,” and “Type 2 diabetes is not as serious as type 1.” 

Here’s a selection of five more myths about diet and exercise, and the truth about them, from my book.

MYTH #1: I should follow the specific “diabetic diet.”

TRUTH: There is no longer any such thing as a “diabetic diet.”

Today, the same dietary guidelines recommended for all Americans are also advised for people with diabetes: Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthful fats, and fiber in appropriate portions. Sweets are permissible as long as they’re worked into your meal plan.

Tip: Maudene Nelson, dietitian at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University in New York City, recommends the Plate Method to make healthy meals: Fill half your plate with colorful veggies low in carbohydrates, such as asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, or cauliflower. Fill one-quarter of your plate with carbohydrate-dense foods such as potatoes, rice, beans, corn, or legumes. Then use the remaining quarter of the plate for lean protein such as chicken, fish, lamb, pork, or beef.

MYTH #2: Healthful foods won’t raise my blood sugar.

TRUTH: Foods that are healthful may also contain a lot of carbohydrates, which raise blood sugar.

Carbohydrates have the greatest impact on raising blood glucose, and many foods that that are considered healthful, such as fruits and fruit juice, potatoes, corn, pasta, grainy breads, and even energy bars, contain high amounts of carbohydrate. Whether you’re eating a piece of triple chocolate cake or slices of pineapple, your blood sugar level will rise appropriate to the amount of carbohydrates in the food.

Tip: Berries and melons, because they contain a lot of water, raise blood sugar less than bananas and mangoes.

MYTH #3: I must lose a lot of weight before my diabetes will improve.

TRUTH: Even a modest weight loss can improve your blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fat levels and reduce your risk of diabetic complications.

Many people with type 2 diabetes believe that they have to lose twenty, thirty, or even fifty pounds to substantially improve their diabetes. Scientific studies, however, show that losing just five to 10 percent of your body weight decreases insulin resistance, helps normalize blood sugars, and lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and medication requirements. It even reduces the risk of short-and long-term complications by as much as 40 percent!

Tip: To keep your carb and fat intake lower, stay away from gooey toppings such as cheese sauces, gravies, and cream-based tomato sauce. Also avoid anything that comes out of the oven with a flaky, golden brown crust.

MYTH #4: Exercise isn’t important for managing my diabetes if I’m taking medicine.

TRUTH: Even if you take medication, physical activity helps you control your blood sugar, lose weight, and utilize insulin more effectively.

People with type 2 diabetes who exercise tend to have blood glucose levels in their target range more often. They are also able to lose weight and keep it off more easily than those who don’t exercise.  In fact, exercise is so beneficial that many patients who diligently monitor their blood sugar, watch their diet, and take their medicine, but don’t exercise, don’t get the same benefits from their treatment.

Tip: Many people who get regular physical activity and lose weight are able to reduce their medication or, in some cases, eliminate medication altogether.

MYTH #5: It’s not safe for people with diabetes to exercise or play sports.

TRUTH: Actually, it is. But if you use insulin or a glucose-lowering medication, you need to take precautions to ensure that your blood sugar doesn’t drop too low or rise too high.

It’s true that if you take insulin or use diabetes medications that prompt your pancreas to produce insulin, you may experience low blood sugar. But instead of prohibiting healthful physical activity, diabetes educators recommend that patients engage in exercise while taking whatever precautions are necessary to do it safely.

Tip: Working with a dietitian, you can shift carbohydrates in your meal plan to fuel your exercise and maintain your blood sugar level.

These are just five of the fifty need-to-know myths and truths that can improve your health and change your life.

Riva Greenberg is the author of the book “The ABCs Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes.” Her new book, “50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life: And the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It,” will be available from your local bookseller in August 2009.        

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