If you are diagnosed with diabetes, either Type 1 or Type 2, then sugar is something that will play a huge role in your life. This is because diabetes and sugar are inextricably linked.
Diabetes is characterised by the body’s inability to access the sugars released into the bloodstream from food because of a lack of insulin. This may be because the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas have been destroyed by the body’s own antibodies (Type 1 diabetes), or because the pancreas is exhausted by having to cope with large amounts of glucose released by sugary food and processed starch over a long period of time (Type 2 diabetes).
The end result of either type of diabetes, if left unchecked, is a raised blood sugar level. This leads to the characteristic pattern of thirst and copious urination, combined with “ketone breath” and (in later stages) the toxic combination of ketoacidosis and dehydration. If high blood sugar levels are left untreated over a matter of weeks, then complication such as kidney disease, foot ulcers and blindness can develop.
Normal blood sugar levels range from 4.0-8.0 mmol/litre. When you have diabetes, you have to manage your insulin, your exercise and your diet to make sure that your blood sugar levels stay in this range. Someone once said that having diabetes is like driving a manual car while those without diabetes are driving automatics. You have to be careful that you don’t “redline” the engine (high blood sugar levels) or “stall” (low blood sugar levels or hypoglycaemia).
If your blood sugar levels are high (>8.0 mmol/litre) over an extended period, then you run a risk of suffering from the unpleasant complications of diabetes. Good management of your diabetes by adjusting your insulin intake and the sugar content in your diet will prevent this.
If your blood sugar levels are too low, then the risk of going into a hypoglycaemic coma is a very real and immediate risk. Unlike the complications caused by high blood sugar levels, the effects of low blood sugars come on very rapidly – in a matter of hours. However, coma does not set in until blood sugar levels have dropped below 1.0 mmol/litre, so it is not inevitable.
The symptoms of low blood sugar are easy to spot and people with diabetes soon learn their individual pattern of symptoms that warn them that they are “low”. Symptoms can include lethargy, shakiness, headaches, irritability, pallor, sweating and dizziness. A “hypo” can be avoided by making sure that meals and snacks are taken at regular times to ensure a steady release of blood sugar, and by taking the correct insulin dose to treat your diabetes.
Treating a “hypo” or low is simple: eating a small amount of food that is high in sugar such as a few jelly beans or a spoonful of sugar, honey or jam, or drinking about 100 ml of regular (not diet) soft drink. This should be followed up by a snack containing slow burning carbohydrates, such as a sandwich or some crackers.
Watching the amount of sugar in your diet and reducing it is an important part of managing your diabetes and preventing complications. It may seem hard at first, but before long, you will become an expert in reading packaging to spot hidden sugar in food (e.g. in peanut butter, salad dressing or tinned soups). And your palate will change, given time, so that you become used to eating low-sugar food.