What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose, a sugar that is the body's main source of fuel. Your body needs glucose to keep running. Here's how it should work.
- You eat.
- Glucose from the food gets into your bloodstream.
- Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin.
- Insulin helps the glucose get into the body's cells.
- Your body gets the energy it needs.
The pancreas is a long, flat gland in your belly that helps your body digest food. It also makes insulin. Insulin is kind of like a key that opens the doors to the cells of the body. It lets the glucose in. Then the glucose can move out of the blood and into the cells.
But if someone has diabetes, the body either can't make insulin (this is called type 1 diabetes) or the insulin doesn't work in the body like it should (this is called type 2 diabetes). The glucose can't get into the cells normally, so the blood sugar level gets too high. Lots of sugar in the blood makes people sick if they don't get treatment.
Can Type 1 Diabetes Be Prevented?
Type 1 diabetes can't be prevented. Doctors can't even tell who will get it and who won't.
In type 1 diabetes, a person's immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys the cells that make insulin. No one knows for sure why this happens, but scientists think it has something to do with genes. Genes are like instructions for how the body should look and work that are passed on by parents to their kids. But just getting the genes for diabetes isn't usually enough. In most cases, something else has to happen — like getting a virus infection — for a person to get type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes isn't contagious, so you can't catch it from another person or pass it along to your friends. And stuff like eating too much sugar doesn't cause type 1 diabetes.
Can Type 2 Diabetes Be Prevented?
Type 2 diabetes is different. Sometimes, type 2 diabetes can be prevented.
In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas can still make insulin, but the body doesn't respond to it in the right way. This problem is usually related to being overweight. In the past, mainly overweight adults developed type 2 diabetes. Today, more kids and teens have type 2 diabetes, probably because more kids and teens are overweight.
Getting to a healthy weight is one way to help prevent type 2 diabetes. Making healthy food choices and getting enough exercise are other good steps to take. If a person makes better food choices and becomes more physically active, it can help prevent diabetes from becoming a problem.
Some people are more likely to get type 2 diabetes than others based on things that can't be changed. For example, people with a Native American, African, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian/Pacific Islander racial/ethnic background are at higher risk for getting type 2 diabetes. And people who have family members with type 2 diabetes are also more likely to develop it.
How Can I Protect Myself From Getting Type 2 Diabetes?
If you want to help keep yourself from getting type 2 diabetes — or just be healthier in lots of other ways — take these steps:
- Eat good-for-you foods. Try to eat foods that are low in fat and high in other nutrients — like whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and lean proteins. These super foods provide you with the nutrition you need to grow, but are also great for helping you get to or stay at a healthy weight, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes.
- Limit fast food and sugary sodas. Eating lots of calorie-laden fast food and sugar-filled beverages — like sodas, juices, and iced teas — can lead to a lot of weight gain.
- Get up and go. Staying active and decreasing the amount of time spent in sedentary activities (like watching TV, being online, or playing video or computer games) can also help to prevent type 2 diabetes. You don't need to join a gym or commit to three sports every school year — being active can be as simple as walking the dog or mowing the lawn. Try to do something that gets you moving every day.
- If you have questions about your weight, ask. If you think you may be overweight or you're just wondering what being healthy is all about, a doctor or a registered dietitian can help. These health care pros can help you find out what your weight goals should be and how to get there — and stay there.