Diabetes is a long-term condition that affects the body’s ability to process sugar or glucose. It can have serious health consequences. However, with careful management, people with diabetes can continue to lead full, healthy and active lives.
People with diabetes are unable to stop the level of glucose in their blood from getting too high. This is because a hormone called insulin is either absent from their body, or not working properly.
Glucose is found in starchy foods, such as pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, as well as in fruit and sweet foods. When we eat food that contains glucose, insulin helps to move it from our blood into our cells, where it’s broken down to produce energy. In people with diabetes, when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work properly, that process is interrupted and glucose builds up in the blood. This is what causes the damaging symptoms of the condition.
Around 2.8 million people in the UK live with diabetes. In 2009, around 150,000 people were diagnosed with the condition, and the charity Diabetes UK estimates that a further 1 million people may have diabetes that hasn’t been diagnosed. These people may be experiencing symptoms that they can’t explain or they may assume that the symptoms are due to other causes, such as getting older or having a busy lifestyle.
Types of diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes:
- Type 1 diabetes: in this type, the body can’t produce any insulin. This type of diabetes usually occurs before the age of 40, and accounts for only around 10% of all cases. It’s the most common form of childhood diabetes.
- Type 2 diabetes: this is where the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or where the body becomes resistant to insulin so that it doesn’t work properly. It’s the most common form of diabetes, accounting for around 90% of cases. It’s frequently linked with being overweight.
Both forms of diabetes are life-long conditions that have serious potential consequences. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage and blindness.
However, if treated effectively, people with diabetes can reduce the risk of those complications and also reduce the day-to-day symptoms.
Many people with diabetes lead lives as healthy and active as those without the condition. There are world-class athletes who have diabetes, such as Sir Steve Redgrave.
Symptoms of diabetes
The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:
- Increased thirst
- Drinking a lot of fluids
- Passing a lot of urine
- Being tired for no reason
- Weight loss
- Genital itching or repeated bouts of thrush
- Slow healing of wounds
- Blurred vision
In type 1 diabetes, symptoms typically develop over a few weeks and quickly become very obvious. Learn more by reading type 1 diabetes – symptoms.
In type 2 diabetes, symptoms can develop more slowly, over a period of months. Some people with type 2 diabetes have very mild symptoms, which they believe have other causes. A few people may have no symptoms at all. Learn more by reading type 2 diabetes – symptoms.
Treatment for diabetes
The aim of any diabetes treatment is to keep blood sugar levels as normal as possible.
People with diabetes need to develop an understanding of how food and physical activity affect their blood glucose level.
As people with type 1 diabetes can’t produce any insulin, they must put insulin into their bodies regularly for the rest of their lives. The most common way to do this is with daily insulin injections. People with type 1 diabetes can be taught to inject themselves. Alternatively, some people with type 1 diabetes use an insulin pump. This is a device about the size of a pack of cards, which sends insulin into the body through a thin tube. Learn more in type 1 diabetes – treatment.
In type 2 diabetes, changing to a healthier diet and lifestyle can often control the condition without the need for further treatment. You can learn more about achieving a healthy weight in our lose weight section. There is also advice on a healthy diet in our food and diet section.
However, most people with type 2 diabetes will eventually need to take tablets, and some will need insulin injections. You can learn more in type 2 diabetes – treatment.
People with diabetes may also take medication to reduce the risk of health complications. For example, many take pills to reduce blood pressure and some take statins to reduce their cholesterol, or low doses of aspirin to help prevent stroke.
Healthy living with diabetes
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you will need to pay special attention to certain aspects of your lifestyle and health.
If you have diabetes, you should have regular eye tests. Watch a video about diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from leading the life you want. Nor does it mean you’ll necessarily have other serious health problems in the future.
With careful management you can ensure you control the condition and it doesn’t control you. This will allow you to stay healthy, active and to live a full life.
Without taking these measures, you are putting yourself at an increased risk of health problems, which could force you to change your lifestyle entirely.
Structured education programmes can teach you more about managing diabetes. Learn more in diabetes education.
When you were diagnosed, you should have been assigned to a diabetes care team who will have explained the most important aspects of managing your condition.
You may also have learned to monitor your blood glucose (sugar) level regularly, and to understand how it is affected by food and exercise.
If you need help to keep your blood glucose level stable, you may have been prescribed diabetes medication, or insulin to inject.
In order to stay well, it’s important to use these aspects of your treatment properly. But it’s also important you take other steps to help manage the condition and lower your risk of further health problems.
Learning to manage your diabetes takes time, patience and effort. You may also be coping with difficult emotions after diagnosis, such as anger, confusion or depression.
Diabetes health risks
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes put you at increased risk of:
- heart disease
- circulation problems
- nerve damage
- foot ulcers
- blindness, caused by diabetic retinopathy
- kidney damage
- skin lesions
- damage to breast tissue in women
- muscle-wasting and damage to ligaments and joints
Healthy living with diabetes
There’s a lot you can do to minimise your risk of these problems.
First, it’s important you take your insulin and other medicines properly.
As well as taking your medicines or insulin, there are a few key steps you can take to prevent or delay the health complications associated with diabetes.
- Maintain a healthy weight – This will help control your blood glucose level, as well as your blood pressure and cholesterol. Learn more in our lose weight section.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in fat, salt and sugar – This doesn’t mean you can never eat biscuits or cakes again, but try to eat sugary and fatty foods in moderation. Learn more in our food and diet section.
- Don’t smoke – If you do smoke, find support to help you stop. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and stroke even further. For help with giving up smoking, see our stop smoking section.
- Get active for 30 minutes a day, five times a week – This helps you stay at a healthy weight and maintain good general health. It doesn’t have to be the gym: there are plenty of other ways to keep active, such as playing with your kids, gardening, or any activity that gently raises your heart rate. Learn more in the fitness section.
- Check your feet every day – The nerve damage that can occur in diabetes most commonly affects feet. Learn more in diabetes and foot health.
- Keep your appointments with your diabetes care team – Regular check-ups once every three months are an important part of managing your diabetes.
Reduce your diabetes risk
There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 2 is the most common and is often linked to being overweight. That means there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing it.
Type 1 diabetes is not linked to being overweight. The cells that produce insulin in the body are damaged for reasons that aren’t yet fully understood. There are no lifestyle changes that can lower your risk of type 1 diabetes.
However, around 90% of people diagnosed with diabetes have type 2. If you maintain a healthy weight, you can reduce your risk of developing the condition.
If you think that you may already have diabetes, see your GP. You can learn about the symptoms of diabetes in diabetes: the facts.
Diabetes and your weight
If you are overweight, you’re at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
You can find out if you’re a healthy weight by calculating your body mass index (BMI) using our healthy weight calculator.
BMI isn’t the only important measurement, your waist measurement may also indicate that you’re carrying extra body fat and are therefore at risk.
For all women, a waist measurement of more than 80cm (31.5 inches) indicates an increased risk.
For white or black men, a waist measurement of more than 94cm (37 inches) indicates an increased risk.
For Asian men, a waist measurement of more than 90cm (35 inches) indicates an increased risk.
If you lose excess weight, you’ll lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. A healthy diet and physical activity are the key to a healthy weight, but that doesn’t have to mean going on a strict diet and spending hours at the gym.
There’s information on a healthy, balanced diet in food and diet.
Other risk factors
A number of other factors can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, most of which are things that we can’t control.
The risk factors include:
- Being over 40, or over 25 if you’re black or Asian
- Having a close family member (parent, brother or sister) who has type 2 diabetes
- Being south Asian or African-Caribbean, these ethnic groups are five times more likely to get type 2 diabetes
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), especially if you’re also overweight
- Having had gestational diabetes (diabetes that lasts for the duration of a pregnancy)
- Having impaired fasting glycaemia or impaired glucose tolerance
If any of these risk factors apply to you, you should maintain a healthy weight to ensure that your risk of diabetes doesn’t increase further.
Diabetes and your child
If your child is diagnosed with diabetes, you may feel overwhelmed, angry, and worried about the future. A diabetes care team can help you come to terms with the challenges that lie ahead.
Parents talk about life with a child who has diabetes, in our video about children with diabetes.
It’s perfectly normal to have difficult feelings when your child is diagnosed with diabetes. However, the condition doesn’t have to take away your child’s freedom, or end your usual family life. What it does mean is that you have to carefully manage your child’s condition as part of daily life.
Diet and nutrition is a key aspect of patient care. We aim to provide the highest standard of nutritional care, to our patients. Our dieticians can help you with all your nutritional needs and questions, ranging from disease-specific medical diets to general healthy eating.
We provide expert evidence-based medical nutrition therapy to ensure you are receiving the best care possible.
A team of highly skilled and professionally qualified dieticians understand your medical condition, your nutritional requirements and have expert knowledge on diet and its application. Dieticians are available for consultation on all related medical conditions and for all ages.
Diet and nutrition play an important role in causes of death, illness and disability in the following conditions:
- Coronary heart disease
- Some forms of cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
- Dental caries
- Gall bladder disease
- Nutritional anaemias
A team of highly skilled Dietitians (Clinical Nutritionists) offer:
- Evidence-based weight loss programmes
- Expert assistance with digestive disorders
- Clinical dietary advice for medical conditions
A diet based on starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta; with plenty of fruit and vegetables; some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils; some milk and dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt or sugar, will give you all the nutrients you need.
When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
Most adults in England are either overweight or obese. That means many of us are eating more than we need, and should eat less. And it’s not just food: some drinks can also be high in calories. Most adults need to eat and drink fewer calories in order to lose weight, even if they already eat a balanced diet.
All the food we eat can be divided into five groups. Try to choose a variety of different foods from the first four groups.
- Fruit and vegetables.
- Starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta. Choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can, or eat potatoes with their skin on for more fibre.
- Meat, fish, eggs and beans.
- Milk and dairy foods.
- Foods containing fat and sugar.
Most people in the UK eat and drink too many calories, and too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre. It’s important to have some fat in the diet, but you don’t need to eat any foods from the ‘Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar’ group as part of a healthy diet.
Fruit and vegetablesFruit and vegetables are a vital source of vitamins and minerals. It’s advised that we eat five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day.
There’s evidence that people who eat at least five portions a day are at lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
What’s more, eating five portions is not as hard as it might sound. Just one apple, banana, pear or similar-sized fruit is one portion. A slice of pineapple or melon is one portion. Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables is another portion.
Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Add a portion of vegetables to dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day.
Starchy foodsStarchy foods should make up around one third of everything we eat. This means we should base our meals on these foods.
Potatoes are an excellent choice of a starchy food and a good source of fibre. Leave the skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, when having boiled potatoes or have a jacket potato, eat the skin too.
Try to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of starchy foods, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and brown wholemeal bread. They contain more fibre (often referred to as ‘roughage’), and usually more vitamins and minerals than white varieties.
Meat, fish, eggs and beansThese foods are all good sources of protein, which is essential for growth and repair of the body. They are also good sources of a range of vitamins and minerals.
Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12. Try to eat lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry whenever possible to cut down on fat. Always cook meat thoroughly. Learn more in our section on Meat.
Fish is another important source of protein, and contains many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Aim for at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. You can choose from fresh, frozen or canned, but canned and smoked fish can be high in salt.
Eggs and pulses (including beans, nuts and seeds) are also great sources of protein. Nuts are high in fibre and a good alternative to snacks high in saturated fat, but they do still contain high levels of fat, so eat them in moderation. Learn more in Eggs and Pulses and beans.
Milk and dairy foodsMilk and dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps to keep your bones healthy.
To enjoy the health benefits of dairy without eating too much fat, use semi-skimmed milk, skimmed milk or 1% fat milks, lower-fat hard cheeses or cottage cheese, and lower-fat yoghurt.
Fat and sugarMost people in the UK eat too much fat and too much sugar.
Fats and sugar are both sources of energy for the body, but when we eat too much of them we consume more energy than we burn, and this can mean that we put on weight. This can lead to obesity, which increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.
But did you know that there are different types of fat?
Saturated fat is found in foods such as cheese, sausages, butter, cakes, biscuits and pies. It can raise your blood cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease. Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat, which puts us at risk of health problems.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help to lower cholesterol and provide us with the essential fatty acids needed to help us stay healthy. Oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oils and vegetable oils are sources of unsaturated fat.
Try to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and have smaller amounts of foods that are rich in unsaturated fat instead. For a healthy choice, use just a small amount of vegetable oil or reduced fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat. Learn more in Eat less saturated fat.
Sugar occurs naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but we don’t need to cut down on these types of sugar. Sugar is also added to lots of foods and drinks such as sugary fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, ice cream and jam. It’s also contained in some ready-made savoury foods such as pasta sauces and baked beans.
Most of us need to cut down on foods with added sugar. Instead of a fizzy drink, for example, try sparkling water. Have a currant bun as a snack instead of a pastry. Learn more in Sugars.