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Back to Basics – What you need to know about Diabetes


Diabetes is one of our biggest health problems today. Fortunately there are many programs and services in place that can help you prevent type 2 diabetes, and manage type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.  If you don’t have diabetes, practice positive health behaviours that may keep you diabetes free for the long term. If you are living with diabetes, use the available resources and supports that can help you gain control of your blood glucose to keep you living well.

Learn more about diabetes and what you can do to stay healthy.


What is diabetes?

When we eat, the carbohydrate in food breaks down in our bodies and turns into glucose (a type of sugar), which gets absorbed into our blood. In a healthy body, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which helps bring the glucose from the blood into our cells and tissues.  We can then use that glucose for energy. 

In diabetes, the process of turning blood glucose into energy doesn’t work properly. This may happen because our pancreas cannot make insulin; cannot make enough insulin; or the cells resist the insulin so that glucose cannot enter the cells. When glucose cannot go into our cells, it stays in the blood. This can lead to many health complications.


Types of diabetes

Type 1 diabetes: This is usually diagnosed in childhood or the teen years. At present, it cannot be prevented and its cause is unknown. With this condition, the pancreas does not produce any insulin so individuals need to inject insulin everyday to stay healthy. Only about 10% of people with diabetes have this type.

Type 2 diabetes:  This is the most common form of diabetes and is usually diagnosed in adulthood. This occurs when the pancreas still produces some insulin but not enough to meet the body’s needs, or the body does not use the insulin it makes effectively. Type 2 diabetes is caused by a combination of preventable and non-preventable risk factors.

Gestational diabetes: This is a temporary condition that happens with some pregnancies. It usually disappears after the mother gives birth. Women who have had gestational diabetes are often at higher risk for type 2 diabetes later in life.

**Prediabetes: While not an “official” type of diabetes, prediabetes is the word used to describe blood glucose levels that are higher than normal, but are not yet at diabetes levels. Having prediabetes increases your risk of diabetes later on unless steps are taken to prevent the disease.


Diabetes is serious

Over time, if diabetes is not managed well, the high levels of blood glucose can cause other serious health conditions, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Eye disease
  • Nerve damage

The good news – diabetes can be prevented or managed well with healthy lifestyle choices.


Risk factors for type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is the result of a combination of risk factors that you can’t change (non-modifiable) and risk factors that you have control over (modifiable)

Non-modifiable risk factors:

  • Family history of diabetes (such as a parent or sibling with the disease)
  • 40 years of age or older
  • Being a member of a high risk ethnic group (Aboriginal, Hispanic, South Asian, Asian or African descent)
  • Having gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby over 4 kg (9 lbs).
  • Health conditions associated with diabetes (polycystic ovary syndrome, schizophrenia)

Modifiable risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Prediabetes
  • Being overweight and obese (and especially carrying most of your weight around your middle)
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Unhealthy eating habits

If you are over age 40 and have some of these risk factors, speak to your doctor about being tested for diabetes.

While there is not much that we can do about our age or ethnic background, we can take control over the modifiable risk factors. You can prevent diabetes by making positive lifestyle changes, and in some cases, taking medication. If you have diabetes, speak with your healthcare team about what you can do to manage your disease and avoid future health problems. 


What does not cause diabetes?

Diabetes is not caused by eating sugar, pasta, white bread and other carbohydrates. However, eating too many foods that are high in sugar, fat and calories may eventually lead to weight gain. Being overweight is a major risk factor for diabetes.


What can you do to prevent developing diabetes or to lower your risk of the complications of diabetes?

Make Healthy Choices

People with diabetes do not need to shop for special foods or go on a “diabetes” diet.  Whether you are working on preventing diabetes or managing blood glucose better, following Canada’s Food Guide and some basic healthy eating principles is best. However, if you are looking for more help with managing blood glucose, you may want to work with a Registered Dietitian to create a healthy eating plan that’s right for you.

Some general ideas to get you started:

Focus on fibre: Fibre is a carbohydrate that our bodies do not digest. Eating fibre will fill you up and help manage your blood glucose levels. Excellent high fibre choices are whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit, and high fibre cold and hot cereals. Eating fibre is also an important tool for weight management and weight loss.

Take control of your heart health: Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease. Reduce your sodium intake, limit saturated and trans fats and experiment with heart healthy cooking techniques, such as baking and poaching.

Learn to read food labels: Knowing how the food you eat measures up is important for making healthy choices and managing blood glucose. Pay attention to the serving size, calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugars and fibre. Don’t forget about looking at the ingredient list and nutrition claims. 


Get Active

Be active everyday. Physical activity helps to manage blood glucose levels and can also help you lose weight. If you have diabetes, aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity spread out over the week. Even better – set a goal of 60 minutes of activity each day.

For more tips and information on how to exercise safely:

Physical Activity and Type 2 Diabetes: Getting Started

This Winter, Don’t Hibernate, Participate!

Get Into the Swing of Being Active

Canada’s Physical Activity Guide, Public Health Agency of Canada

Physical Activity and Type 2 Diabetes, Canadian Diabetes Association


Lose Weight

Studies have shown that losing even 5-10% of your body weight helps people with diabetes control their blood glucose better. For example, if you are 150 lb (68 kg) this would mean losing about 8-15 lb (4-7 kg). Being at a healthy weight is a risk factor that you do have control over!

For tips and information on losing weight in a healthy way:


Are You a Yo-Yo?

Weight Control Strategies that Work

Healthy Eating for a Healthy Waist


**Be informed. Learn as much as you can about diabetes, how to prevent it and how to manage it. The more you know, the more confident you will be about your health.


Diabetes support is available

Having diabetes does not mean needing to find out everything by yourself. There are many healthcare professionals and diabetes services available to help prevent and manage the disease.

If you have general questions about healthy eating and diabetes call EatRight Ontario at 1-877-510-510-2.

A variety of health professionals can be part of a healthcare team to help you with diabetes:

  • Family Doctor – If you haven’t been tested for diabetes and you’re over 40 – ask your doctor for a test.
  • Registered Dietitian – A dietitian can help you plan a diet for weight management, or work out a menu plan that will help you manage your blood glucose levels.
  • Registered Nurse
  • Pharmacist
  • Social Worker
  • Diabetes specialist (endocrinologist)
  • Foot care specialist (podiatrist or chiropodist)
  • Eye care specialist (ophthalmologist)

*Your friends and family! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the people that care about you. They can be your best partners when it comes to making healthy choices, getting active or just listening!


Diabetes Education Centres (DEC)

Make an appointment at a Diabetes Education Centre to learn more about diabetes and speak to the healthcare professionals who can help you prevent and manage the disease. To find a DEC in your area, call EatRight Ontario at 1-877-510-510-2.

To find a Registered Dietitian in your area, visit Dietitians of Canada or call EatRight Ontario at 1-877-510-510-2.

Read more about the diabetes services and programs offered in Ontario.

For cookbooks, trustworthy websites and support groups: Resources for Diabetes Prevention and Management


Copyright © Dietitians of Canada 2014. All rights reserved.

Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.