We have all heard of it and with 3.3million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes it’s likely you know someone living with the condition. But there are over half a million people who don’t realise they have diabetes and are severely damaging their health by leaving it untreated, sometimes for up to a decade.
‘Diabetes is divided into two types,’ explains Libby Dowling from Diabetes UK. ‘We don’t know why some people get it Type 1, which accounts for 10 percent of people with diabetes and is when your body no longer makes insulin. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it and this type comes on rapidly as your body ‘runs out’ of insulin. Type 2 diabetes develops more slowly and is more diet related, as we are seeing our population getting more overweight we are seeing more Type 2 diabetes.’
There are three main risk factors for Type 2 diabetes: age, family history and weight. ‘Your risk if you are white goes up over the age of 40 but if you are black or South Asian it’s considerably younger,’ explains Libby. ‘If you have a parent or a sibling with it you are more at risk. You can’t really do anything about these factors so the most potent risk is the one you can do something about – which is being overweight.’
Libby advises anyone with any of the risk factors experiencing the symptoms of diabetes to see their GP as soon as possible.
‘Feeling very thirsty, passing urine frequently and more in the night, getting very tired for no reason, blurred eyesight and slow healing of wounds are all classic symptoms,’ says Libby. ‘If you have Type 1 they come on quickly, often within weeks, and you will feel extremely unwell. With Type 2 the feelings are so much more insidious. People put them down to getting old or explain away the increased drinking – there’s always a reason for it.’
There certainly is a really straight forward way of avoiding diabetes – staying a healthy weight with a balanced diet. ‘It’s a dull message we are fed up of hearing but there is no miracle diet – just a diet low in fat, salt, sugar with at least five portions of fruit and veg a day,’ says Libby. ‘You can still have sugary and fatty foods but not too many of them and watch your portion size.’
For Type 1 diabetic’s the only way to manage their condition is by injecting insulin into their bodies. But diet plays such a fundamental part in the treatment of diabetes that for many recently diagnosed Type 2 diabetics they can often manage their condition with diet alone before needing any medication.
‘For many people who are overweight that’s the first line of treatment and it can keep glucose levels reasonable for some time without any medication. But diabetes is a progressive condition so eventually you will need some medication to help. There are a range of medications you could take on their own or in a combination. If that isn’t working then you would go on to insulin as a Type 1 diabetic does.’
If diabetes is properly managed there is no reason why anyone with it can’t live a long and healthy life. ‘You don’t really die of diabetes but it’s the complications which are dangerous and we want to avoid – it’s the high blood glucose levels which weaken the blood vessels and cause the heart attack or stroke. But all the evidence points to the fact that if you look after yourself and have medical guidance, you have far less risk of those complications.’