Understanding type 2 diabetes
Even though the most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes, there’s a lot that may be misunderstood about this disease. These misconceptions may lead people to feeling guilty about a diagnosis. Developing type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you are a bad person; it means your body may not be functioning correctly. Through healthy lifestyle changes — and sometimes with the help of medication — you may decrease complications and live a long and fulfilling life. 1
Frequently asked questions about type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes develops when the pancreas can’t create enough insulin or the body is resistant to insulin.2 The exact “why” this happens is unknown. While it’s more likely to develop if you’re overweight or inactive, it’s also important to know that genetics play a significant role in the development of the disease.3
Some common factors that may raise your risk include:4
- Carrying excess weight
- Being physically inactive
- Having a parent, brother or sister with type 2 diabetes
- Having gestational diabetes (develops during pregnancy)
- Having a history of heart disease or stroke
- Having high blood pressure
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Being 45 or older
- Race: African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Even if you’re high-risk, you may be able to stop or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes by making lifestyle changes, like how much and what you eat and how often and how long you are physically active.5 It may be helpful to focus on adopting a healthy way of life, not just achieving a magical number on the scale. You may lower your risk when you:6
- Get moving. Set realistic goals. Keep it simple. Take a 10-minute walk after eating a meal, then 20 minutes, then 30. Make physical activity fun so that you’ll be more likely to stick with it.7 No matter what, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture — this is an investment in your health.
- Add vegetables. Eating one and a half extra servings of leafy green veggies may help reduce your risk by a whopping 14 percent.8
- Eat smaller portions. Know how to estimate portion sizes, or how much you should eat. For example, 3 ounces of meat, fish or poultry is approximately the size of the palm of your hand (no fingers), one ounce of cheese is the size of your thumb, one cup or one medium fruit is the size of your fist.9 Knowing the real size of a portion may help you avoid overeating.
Making healthy choices may have more benefits than just lowering your blood sugar.10 You may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce your risk of low bone mass, feel more energetic, keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in target range, sleep better and think more clearly.11 Those are some bonus benefits. Every small, gradual step toward healthier habits may be a step in the right direction.
Your body needs blood sugar, also called glucose, for energy. Instead of using this energy all at once, insulin — a hormone — stores that energy until it’s needed. When insulin isn’t working properly, it may lead to excess glucose in the blood.12
With type 1 diabetes, the body may attack and destroy the cells that make insulin. Because of this, it’s an autoimmune condition that may have nothing to do with diet or lifestyle choices.13
With type 2 diabetes, people become insulin resistant — their bodies make insulin, but are unable to use it properly. You are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes through a diet high in fat, calories and cholesterol and an inactive lifestyle.10 Unlike type 1 diabetes, it is possible to delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.14
Prediabetes is when you are borderline diabetic. When you have prediabetes, your blood glucose levels are elevated, just not yet elevated to type 2 diabetic levels.15
Work with your doctor to keep up with regular health maintenance — it's important with type 2 diabetes:15
- Know your numbers. Keep a record.
- Schedule a yearly dilated eye exam to check for eye disease.
- Schedule a yearly urine test to check for kidney disease.
- Get help to quit smoking.16
- Keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or whatever your doctor recommends).17
- Schedule a yearly foot exam, particularly if you have neuropathy, or nerve damage (numbness, burning, tingling or pain). Throughout the rest of the year, pay close attention to your feet. Having nerve damage may prevent you from feeling if your feet are cut or hurt, which may lead to an infection that may not heal properly. Check your feet for cuts or sores (wash them every day), keep blood flowing by putting your feet up when you’re sitting and try not to go barefoot during the warm months.18
- Make regular dental appointments to prevent serious problems. (Dry mouth can put you at a higher risk of cavities; mismanaged blood sugar can lead to gum disease.)19
- Go to your doctor at least twice a year for an A1C test. Aim to stay in your target range.20
- Learn about type 2 diabetes so you can be your own best advocate.
Hearing that you have type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you are powerless to protect your health. The magic lies in what you do next. It may be the beginning of an awakening and awareness, the start of adopting positive lifestyle changes that may benefit you long into the future.
More diabetes resources for you
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with prediabetes, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you can download our Diabetes Toolkit to help you learn more about your condition.
- Prevent Complications www.cdc.org, 2019.
- Type 2 diabetes www.mayoclinic.org, 2021.
- Genetics of Diabetes www.diabetes.org, 2021.
- Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes www.niddk.nih.gov, 2016.
- Diabetes prevention: 5 tips for taking control www.mayoclinic.org, 2019.
- Type 2 Diabetes www.diabetes.org, 2021.
- Barriers to fitness: Overcoming common challenges www.mayoclinic.org, 2019.
- Fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus: systematic review and meta-analysis www.bmj.com, 2010.
- Diabetes Meal Planning www.cdc.gov, 2020.
- Questions and Answers on food and diet diabetesaction.org, 2021.
- Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity www.niddk.nih.gov, 2016.
- What is insulin? www.yourhormones.info, 2018.
- Type 1 Diabetes: What Is It? kidshealth.org, 2018.
- Prediabetes www.mayoclinic.org, 2020.
- Type 2 Diabetes www.cdc.gov, 2019.
- Living Healthy with Diabetes www.heart.org, 2020.
- Prevent Complications www.cdc.gov, 2019.
- Diabetes and Foot Problems www.niddk.nih.gov, 2017.
- Diabetes and Teeth www.mouthhealthy.org, 2021.
- Understanding A1C www.diabetes.org, 2021.