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Teaching Nutrition: Background information about nutrition, the nutrients, and healthy eating habits
Diabetes Mellitus

Image of the Pancreas.

Diabetes Mellitus is often just called “diabetes”; it is a disease in which the body is unable to produce or use insulin properly. Insulin is the hormone necessary for cells to intake glucose, and for the conversion of glucose into energy. The body cells cannot bring the glucose inside the cell membrane and use it for energy. The glucose from food accumulates outside of the cells, in the blood, and causes problems.


Two Major Types of Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes
Is also called “juvenile onset” or “insulin-dependent”. In this disease, the part of the pancreas that makes insulin is destroyed, either by the body itself (autoimmune disease) or by a virus. Fewer than 10% of people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes.   Is sometimes known as “adult onset” or “non-insulin-dependent”. In the beginning, the pancreas is functioning and there is plenty of insulin, but the body cells do not respond to the insulin normally. Eventually, as the disease progresses, the pancreas will stop making insulin, and the body acts much like it does during Type 1 diabetes. Persons with Type 2 diabetes tend to be older, overweight or obese, and of minority ethnic origin. Approximately 90% of individuals with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of untreated diabetes include increased output of urine, weakness, weight loss, increased thirst and appetite, blurred vision, fatigue, and frequent infections.

Persons with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes must watch their diets, exercise regularly, and test their blood sugar levels. Individuals with Type 1 usually must take injections of insulin to counteract the lack of insulin-producing cells in their pancreas. The amount of insulin needed is based on the types and amounts of foods that are consumed and the day’s activities. Individuals with Type 2 diabetes may or may not need to take insulin.

Untreated diabetes can cause problems for almost every body system and organ. If blood sugar levels are allowed to fall too low, the person can experience hypoglycemia. Mild symptoms include confusion, nervousness, and shaking; serious symptoms can include convulsions and fainting.

If blood sugar levels rise too high, the condition is called hyperglycemia. High blood sugar damages many organs. Typically, damage occurs gradually (over time) and can include problems with:

  • Eyes – vessels in the retina, the back part of the eye, are damaged causing loss of vision (blindness)
  • Heart – vessels are damaged leading to heart disease and heart attack
  • Stroke – vessels in the brain are damaged, leading to blockage of blood flow and death of part of the brain
  • Kidneys – the kidneys filter the blood and estimate waste products, they also maintain the blood pressure and fluids in the body. High blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the kidneys leading to fatigue, nausea and vomiting, itching or yellow skin, heartburn, metal taste in the mouth, and edema (swelling).
  • Nerves – high blood sugar can damage the nervous system, especially the nerves in the feet, legs, and hands.
  • Feet and/or legs – damaged vessels and nerves can lead to loss of sensation and a variety of foot problems including swelling, soreness, blisters, sores, and tissue loss. In some cases, limb amputation is necessary.

There is no one correct diet for people with diabetes. The amount and type of food you eat, the time you eat, the type of disease you have and its severity, the amount and type of activity you engage in during each day, your body weight and gender, and the type and amount of medication you take all affect what you can eat.

The main goal of the treatment is to maintain the blood sugar levels within a normal range – not too high or too low. To do this, the individual typically keeps a fairly strict schedule of diet, exercise, blood sugar testing, and medication. Small meals are dispersed throughout the day with snacks in between. Exercising 30-60 minutes each day is strongly encouraged, both to maintain a healthy body weight and to help control the blood sugar. Medication and blood testing are done on a regular basis.


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