Understanding Diabetes and the effects of sugar

We explain the difference between type 1 and 2 diabetes and the effects of sugar on our body. We all know we need to limit our sugar intake and this is especially important if you are at risk of developing diabetes. We have some tips on reading ingredients labels, what foods to avoid and how to cut down your sugar intake.

In order for our bodies to function properly, glucose (sugar) from food needs to be converted into an energy currency our cells can use. The hormone insulin is responsible for the conversion of glucose into energy. In those with diabetes insulin production ceases, or, insulin is no longer produced in sufficient amounts by the pancreas. When people with diabetes eat foods, especially those higher in glucose, such as breads, cereals, fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, milk, yogurt, and sweets, glucose cannot be converted into energy.

Rather than be converted into energy, glucose remains in the bloodstream, resulting in high blood glucose levels. Your blood glucose level is called glycaemia. High blood glucose levels are dangerous, and can cause serious health problems if not treated.

Type I diabetes

Type I diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the immune system is triggered to attack and destroy cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Without insulin, the body cannot convert glucose into energy. Insulin must be medically self-administered for patients with type I diabetes. The exact cause of type I diabetes remains unknown, but there is a strong family link and this condition cannot be prevented. Symptoms include being excessively thirsty, passing more urine, feeling lethargic, feeling dizzy, unexplained weight loss, mood swings, and blurred vision.

Type 2 diabetes

Type II diabetes develops progressively; a condition by which the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin and/or the pancreas gradually loses the capacity to produce insulin. Type II diabetes is strongly associated with modifiable lifestyle and dietary factors, such as poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Type II diabetes also has strong family/genetic links. Being overweight or obese and having high blood pressure increases your risk for developing type II diabetes. Symptoms are similar to type I diabetes, and can also include leg cramps, headaches, skin itching/infections, and poor wound healing.

Preventing type 2 diabetes

According to Diabetes Australia (2015), type 2 diabetes can be prevented and or delayed in up to 58% of cases by maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular exercise, and following a healthy diet.

Prevention tips include:

  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
  • Keeping physical active
  • Consuming a healthy diet

Be cautious of low fat options

Low fat foods do not necessarily correlate to being healthier options. Low fat food products are often laden with sugar as without the fat, flavour is compromised. Sugar is used to enhance the flavour and extend the shelf life. Labels on food packaging do not serve as appropriate guidelines to follow in order to achieve healthiness; labeling on food packaging is used to promote the product to increase sales by creating a halo around that product.

Too much sugar is bad for your health. Over-consuming sugar creates blood glucose highs and lows, causing insulin to spike and then fall. If insulin levels are constantly swinging up and down like a pendulum, the pancreas becomes exhausted, and may eventually stop releasing insulin, leaving glucose levels elevated in the bloodstream. This sets the stage for type II diabetes and chronically high blood sugar is a life threatening situation.

My advice to patients is to avoid low fat food products, and eat foods in their most natural form as possible.

These foods are ones to be cautious of as they commonly have added sugar:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Flavoured yogurt
  • Bread
  • Muffins
  • Reduced fat peanut butter
  • Salad dressings
  • Coffee drinks/energy drinks
  • Frozen yogurt

How can I reduce sugar in my diet?

  • Remove white and brown sugar from your pantry-out of sight, out of mind!
  • Replace with healthier options, such as brown rice syrup, organic honey, organic maple syrup, and organic coconut sugar; stick to a maximum intake of 2 tablespoons per day; learn to reduce the amount of sugar you add to your foods. Molecularly speaking, sugar is still sugar!
  • Try sweetening foods with fresh fruit, for example, a mashed banana, apple sauce, dried fruit, or grated apple.
  • In baking recipes, reduce the sugar (even from the healthier options) to half; you won’t notice the difference!
  • Enhance foods with spices rather than sugar; cinnamon, fennel, cardamom, nutmeg, and all spice are fantastic options.

Identifying sugar on food labels

I advise all my patients to stick to whole, nutrient dense foods whenever they can. I’d prefer patients eat small amounts of fruit or a small portion of dried fruit, rather than reaching for candy or a chocolate bar.

If you are purchasing products, here are the numerous ways sugar can be listed on the label:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Molasses
  • Sugar
  • Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (e.g. dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, sucrose, maltose)
  • Syrup

Bottom line:

Overconsumption or a high intake of sugar is dangerous for the body, and doesn’t just put you at risk for diabetes; cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and heart disease are also correlated to the negative effects of poor diet and lifestyle habits. Know your risk factors and what you can control. You CAN control cholesterol, diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol intake, high blood pressure, obesity, overweight, and type II diabetes (to an extent). You CANNOT control your gender, age, genetics, or race. It’s important to take control of your health and start by engaging in exercise and undertaking a healthy diet. You’ve got nothing to lose, only optimum health benefits to gain!


American Heart Association (2018). Know your risk. Retrieved from http://www.goredforwomen.org.

Diabetes Australia (2015). What is diabetes. Retrieved from http://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au.

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