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That sounds like a simple enough question, right? First, eating sugar does not cause diabetes. That can be confusing because diabetes is too much sugar in our blood. But all carbohydrates break down into sugars, even nonsweet foods like potatoes and beans – during digestion, and the amount of that sugar that is glucose is absorbed directly into our blood. So, we have to manage the carbohydrates in our diet in order to manage blood sugar levels.
One risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, however, is excess body weight. And if we consider the most common foods in what has come to be called the “Western Diet” it’s a safe bet to say that sugar plays a significant role for many people in accumulating that excess body weight. There is suspicion that a different sugar – fructose- plays an outsized role in “metabolic syndrome” and type 2 diabetes as well.
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Can Eating Sugar Cause Diabetes?
I’ve heard this story many times… either people telling me “oh ya, I was eating a lot of sugar and then got diabetes…“ or “no worries about my diabetes now, I stay away from sugar”. So… the big question here is “can eating sugar cause diabetes?”
I know this can get confusing since way back in history, we used to call it sugar diabetes. And we often refer to our blood having sugar…. like my blood SUGAR is above target. But the sugar in our blood is actually called glucose from a medical perspective. And it’s not necessarily sugar as we know it. Glucose is a breakdown product of carbohydrate foods which is then absorbed into our blood during digestion. And we absolutely need glucose in our blood. Just not too much for too long.
When we hold too much glucose in our blood for too long we have diabetes….something isn’t working correctly and that something is our body’s system using insulin for balancing how much glucose stays in our blood. So, it’s not eating too much “sugar”, that causes diabetes. It is losing our ability to control the glucose that comes into our blood when we eat carbohydrates. Sugar-sweetened foods are definitely carbohydrate foods but so are potatoes and peas and parsnips and rice and bread and beans and apples and beer and much more.
So What Actually Causes Diabetes?
What causes diabetes then? Type 1 diabetes happens when the body cannot produce insulin and the “cause” is unknown. Well, the cause is that our own immune system mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells, but the cause of the cause is unknown. Anyway, since insulin is necessary to keep blood sugar in a normal range we must take insulin injections daily.
Type 2 diabetes happens when insulin isn’t working effectively to lower blood sugar levels even though enough is being produced. This is called insulin resistance. There are many factors that may put us at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, like ethnicity and excess body weight, and eventually, it’s likely that natural insulin production will fall off or stop.
Type 1 and 2 – Different, But The Same
While type 1 and type 2 diabetes are different there are important things that are the same. First, having consistently high blood sugar levels over time causes damage to nerves and blood vessels leading to serious “complications.” Second, there is no cure for either. Type 2 diabetes can be kept in remission if diagnosed early, however. Third, both can be effectively managed with medication, exercise, and an appropriate diet. Fourth, it’s up to us to do the management for ourselves – diabetes is a self-managed disease. That’s what I’m here to help you with- self-management.
I have several more topics about sugar that you may want to check out. I also have a series on carbohydrate-containing foods, including one on sweets, and a couple of videos on fruit. Make sure to check out my video short about added sugar.
Don’t forget to take a look at our most frequently asked questions.
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