What Is Diabetes?

Last Update: December 22, 2023

What do Nick Jonas, Salma Hayek, and Tom Hanks have in common? All three live with diabetes, a chronic condition that significantly impairs the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Diabetes affects a large population of people throughout the world and from all walks of life.

According to the most recent numbers reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 22 million people have been diagnosed with disease—and that’s just in the United States. That figure has increased four times since data was first collected in 1980, showing an alarming trend as the potentially life-threatening condition becomes more commonplace.

Though there is no cure as of yet, much research is being done to figure out ways to halt the growth of diabetes. The good news is, that through healthy lifestyle and diet modifications, you can greatly reduce your own risk.

A definition of diabetes

There are several different types of diabetes, but they all relate to the pancreas’ ability to produce and regulate the hormone insulin, which is important for breaking down the food you eat. To put it in more simple terms, when food is eaten, it is broken down into glucose (aka blood sugar) that moves throughout the body and provides the energy needed to perform everyday activities.

A properly functioning pancreas will continually release insulin in order to keep glucose levels where they should be. Diabetes occurs when one of three things happens:

  • The body is insulin resistant and doesn’t appropriately utilize the insulin it naturally produces.
  • The pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin.
  • The pancreas doesn’t produce any insulin.

Types of diabetes

There are several different types of diabetes. Some are genetic and present from birth, while other types can develop later on and are mostly influenced by diet and lifestyle habits.

Type 1 diabetes

This type is also known as juvenile diabetes since it’s typically diagnosed in children and young adults. It’s also the most rare. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), type 1’s only make up 5 percent of the total diabetic population. With type 1, the body doesn’t produce insulin at all and needs regular insulin injections in order to keep glucose levels consistent. In addition to medicine, juvenile diabetes can be greatly benefited by healthier diets, though that can be impeded by more expensive costs that could make some more susceptible, especially if given a family history.


Those with higher than normal blood sugar levels that don’t yet meet the requirements for type 2 diabetes are known as pre-diabetic. If lifestyle modifications such as increased activity and healthier diets are not made, it is likely that an individual will develop full-blown diabetes in less than ten years. But, the good news is that eating a well-balanced diet and limiting sugar intake can go a long way toward reducing and even reversing the risk.

Type 2 diabetes

The most common form of the disease is type 2 diabetes, which can affect people at any age. With type 2 diabetes, individuals become insulin resistant over time and suffer from a condition known as hyperglycemia, or blood sugar levels that are consistently higher than normal. In the beginning stages of type 2 diabetes, the pancreas may make more insulin to compensate, but over time it won’t be able to keep up. Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled with regular exercise and a healthy diet. But, medication and insulin may also be necessary.

Gestational diabetes

Pregnancy generally causes some level of insulin resistance in most women, but some (about 2-10 percent, according to the National Institute of Health) can have more severe fluctuations and develop what is known as gestational diabetes. Because the blood is circulated to the baby through the mother, it’s vital that gestational diabetes is treated appropriately. Most common methods are controlling weight gain, getting regular exercise, and adhering to a carefully-planned diet. The condition does go away after the baby is born, but women who have gestational diabetes often have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

What causes diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is almost always affected by family history and genetics. As well, any illness or infection that affects the pancreas may also make the body more susceptible. Type 2 diabetes can also be related to family history or ancestry—Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Hispanic/Latino, African Americans, and Asian Americans have higher rates of the disease. But, there are also external causes that can lead to contracting type 2 diabetes, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Age
  • High blood pressure
  • High levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol
  • Inactivity

Gestational diabetes can also be caused by age, weight, past cases of glucose intolerance, or a family history.

Symptoms of diabetes

When your blood sugar levels become too high or too low, your body will react to the imbalance. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and hunger
  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme thirst
  • Itchy skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Cuts and sores that heal slowly
  • Numbness or pain in the feet or legs
  • Yeast infections
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Sweet-smelling breath

Testing for diabetes

Getting tested for diabetes is important, particularly if there is a family history. Anyone with a father, mother, sister, or brother with type 1 diabetes should be checked during early childhood. If you have some of the symptoms listed above and think you might have type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes, talk to your doctor. He or she can administer common tests and provide a formal diagnosis. You may need to do one or more of the following to receive final results:

  • Fasting glucose test: This is a simple blood draw that tests your blood sugar levels before eating to determine your baseline numbers. If your levels are too high, this could be a red flag.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test: This is a two-part test. You will drink a beverage with high concentrations of glucose to see how your body processes it, and your blood sugar levels will be checked every 30-60 minutes for three hours to see if your numbers spike over time. This test is often used to determine if a person has gestational diabetes, too.
  • A1C test: This is a more comprehensive blood test that provides information about your levels over the previous two to three months. Your doctor will look to see if blood sugar levels have been consistently high.

Diabetes treatments

Because diabetics cannot control the amount of glucose in their system, it can lead to blood sugar being too high or too low if not treated properly. Thankfully there are a number of ways to treat the disease and help keep symptoms at bay.

First, diabetics need to consistently keep track of blood sugar numbers throughout the day. This is done with the use of a portable monitor that tests blood from a single finger prick, and is mostly utilized before and after meals.

Different treatments will be prescribed to help keep levels consistent, usually a combination of lifestyle and eating habits, scheduling regular check-ups, and taking medication as prescribed. The most common is synthetic insulin injections, though there are a number of oral pills that can be used as well.

Controlling diabetes is different for every person, and your medical team may include other professionals, including nutritionists and endocrinologists, that will work together to set goals with you and adjust your medication and other treatments as needed.

Though your plan will become routine after time, diabetes is a medical condition that should not be tended to on your own. Without proper attention, and if left untreated, diabetes can result in a number of complications including vision issues, kidney failure, heart problems, strokes, nerve damage, and gum disease.

Diabetes diet

While medication is an essential part of treatment, healthy eating habits are also key. Many diabetics have adopted the Paleo diet, which limits carbs and sugars that contribute to blood sugar spikes. Using sugar alternatives is also important for this reason (and if you’re looking to just go cold turkey, here’s some tips for how to kick your sweet cravings in just a few days).

Some nutrient-dense foods that can always be included in a diabetic diet include:

  • Dark leafy green veggies including kale, collards, and spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and grapefruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains like oatmeal and pearled barley
  • Fat-free yogurt and milk
  • Beans

Lowering your risks for diabetes

Whether or not you have a genetic predisposition, it does not mean you will contract diabetes. Furthermore, there are things you can do now that will help to prevent its onset, including:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating healthy
  • Staying active
  • Losing weight
  • Getting regular check-ups
  • Reducing stress (increased cortisol can affect your body’s ability to process glucose)

The best way to combat diabetes is early diagnosis and treatment in order to protect the body and increase the quality and length of life.

New developments in the fight for a cure

Though diabetes has no cure—yet—scientists are putting more effort and money into research. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) raises funds for research through regular walks, bike races, and even local school events open to anyone who wants to help.

Newer advances, such as insulin pumps (a tool that automatically measures blood sugar levels and injects insulin right into the body when needed), also eliminates the need for regular monitoring, making it easier to live with diabetes and improving the quality of life.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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