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Does Eating Too Much Sugar Cause Diabetes?

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 22 in the December 18-19, 2004 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Doctor's Corner.

Diabetes is probably best understood by those afflicted with the condition. Ingesting sweets as part of our regular diet does not cause diabetes. This myth was born when it was noticed that untreated diabetics tend to be attracted to sweets. Diabetes is characterized by "starvation in the midst of plenty". Diabetics suffer a metabolic disorder in which body cells are unable to properly absorb the sugar molecules essential for life giving energy. When cells are starved of sugar, they send messages to increase production and uptake. Great quantities of sugar may build up in the blood, but very little is able to get into the cell where it is required. Insulin is a precious hormone that is manufactured in the pancreas and is essential to transport sugar out of the blood and into the cell. By definition, diabetics suffer defects in either insulin secretion or its mode of action. Left unchecked, this condition can cause deterioration of kidneys, corneas, blood vessels and nerves. This results in heart attacks, strokes, the need to undergo regular dialysis treatment, or possibly the need for transplants.

Diabetes can be categorized into one of four types. In Type I diabetes, the insulin producing beta-cells within the pancreas undergo destruction resulting in deficiency. It may be due to an acute infection. Type I is usually seen in children and requires immediate insulin.

Type II is the most common type of diabetes. It is a slowly progressive disease and involves resistance to insulin effects. There seems to be a correlation with obesity and sadly, Type II diabetes is now emerging in overweight children. This type of diabetes is usually treated with various combinations of pills to control blood sugar. Insulin is usually added as the last treatment step. Aggressive attempts to modify weight, blood pressure and blood lipids are also employed. Diet seems to be a key. Learning what to eat, how to cook, and most importantly, how to recognize undesirable and harmful foods is essential.

Type III diabetes occasionally occurs during pregnancy, and is termed gestational diabetes. It can affect the unborn child and result in large infants with health problems. Type IV diabetes is a category used to classify rare causes such as some tumors.

Physicians screen for diabetes at every opportunity. A simple fasting blood test can pick up the diagnosis. Over the last dozen years, the blood sugar levels at which we consider people to be afflicted have been continuously tightened. A fasting blood sugar level of over 7.0 mmole/L is now sufficient to consider one diabetic. Furthermore, if your fasting blood level is between 6.1 to 6.9 mmole/L, then we consider you to have impaired glucose tolerance, and attempt to coax you into changing eating and exercise habits. Once mild diabetes is diagnosed, attempts at diet modification can delay the need for any type of drug. How well you control your blood sugar over time is monitored with another blood test. A specific type of hemoglobin molecule called A1C is produced when high levels of sugar are present in the blood. The level of A1C can reflect how well you control your blood sugar. The effects on kidneys, gout, cholesterol and hypertension are also monitored with regular blood tests.

So in the end, your Baba, Oma or Nona may have been right but for the wrong reason. One highly sweet meal may not cause diabetes, but a long term and continuous artificial elevation in sugar with junk food resulting in obesity, may well lead to Type II diabetes. I think that the first step to success is for parents to realize that junk food can no longer be considered a "treat" to reward some aspect of positive behavior. Rewarding good performance with harmful foods sends a confusing message to children. This programming seems to be in the auto-play mode in the minds of a great many of today's parents who received these subliminal messages themselves in a previous era.

Related Resources:

leaf Canadian Diabetes Strategy from Health Canada.

Diabetes from MedlinePlus.

Information About Diabetes plus medication, diet, alternative therapies and diabetic products.

Prediabetes Test from Testing.com.

Glucose Tests for Gestational Diabetes from Testing.com.

How Sugar Can Cause Obesity and Diabetes bu Gabe Mirkin, M.D. Sep 18, 2022.

Causes of Diabetes from Diabetes Canada.

History of Diabetes by Eloise Porter, Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, M.D., FACP, Healthline, Sep 18, 2018.

Can You Get Diabetes from Eating Too Much Sugar? From Colgate, Sep 15, 2022.

Diabetes: What's True and False? from Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. Does Eating Sugar Cause Diabetes? By Christine Fallabel, DiabetesStrong, Apr 15, 2022.

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