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Diet, exercise and diabetes – Emma’s Story.

“You just take it easy”

That’s what I was told by a spinning instructor when I went to one of his classes for the first time after joining a new gym. Why? Had I told him I was pregnant? Recently had surgery? Was getting over some illnesses and had only been discharged from hospital? Nope. I had told him that I was diabetic.

I CAN do it!

The immediate reaction from the instructor I mentioned above was that, because I was diabetic, I wasn’t capable of taking part – of really pushing myself – in his class. I felt quite patronised when I was told to “take it easy”. 

Honestly, it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Whenever I would tell people about my diabetes, they would assume that I couldn’t do this, or that I shouldn’t do that. There are probably many reasons for this, but I really resent being told that this illness that I have lived with since I was just a young child stops me doing anything.

So, I wanted to challenge some of those myths and misconceptions around diabetes – specifically Type 1 (yep, there’s more than one ‘flavour’ of this disease!) – and to set straight some of these untruths. 

  1. I did this to myself

You’ll have probably seen stories about how diabetes can be ‘cured’ by following a very low calorie diet, how certain foods make people more susceptible to this condition, or how rising obesity levels are contributing to the growth in diabetes diagnoses. 

Most of the stories that we see are about type 2 diabetes, which is the type that many will think of when they hear the word “diabetic”. That’s certainly been my experience. I’ve lost count of the number of people who will tell me if I eat this food, I could reverse my diabetes. I’ve also had people ask me if I should be eating that, or if I have tried losing some weight rather than just ‘accept’ this disease.

Well, here’s the thing… I have type 1 diabetes, which is a totally different kettle of fish to type 2. Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in those who are overweight, and it is more closely linked with “poor lifestyle choice”. That being said, though, there are type 2 diabetics who are otherwise very fit and healthy.

If you have type 2 diabetes, your body is either unable to produce enough insulin, or the insulin that it does make doesn’t do the job that it is supposed to do. Insulin is important as it helps our bodies to regulate our blood sugar levels, and to use the glucose within our bloodstream to create energy. When your body is unable to produce or use insulin effectively, your blood sugars rise, and that can lead to some quite nasty side effects.

Around 90% of diabetics have type 2. The type that I have, though, affects less than 9% of all diabetics. It is much less common, and its causes, as well as the way it is treated and managed, are very different.

Type 1 diabetes is caused when your body attacks cells within your pancreas, which means that it can no longer produce any insulin. Medical professionals still don’t know why this happens. At the minute, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes; instead, it needs to be managed with artificial insulin.

  1. Should you really be eating that?!

I was diagnosed when I was very young. I actually can’t remember what it was like to live without diabetes.

Some type 2 diabetics control their sugar levels via diet alone. They need to be careful with what they are eating to avoid their blood sugar rising to potentially dangerous levels.

For me, the only way to properly control my diabetes is through insulin injections. I inject myself at least five times every day – sometimes more. Before each meal, I need to count how many grams of carbs I am having, and then calculate how much insulin I need using my carb:insulin ratio. I also need to consider what my pre-meal sugar level is, whether that’s been rising or falling, whether I am under the weather, if I am going to be exercising, and so on. Long and short of it, though, the more carbs I eat, the more insulin I need to give myself.

I won’t lie, this isn’t always easy, even when I have lived with it for over 30 years! The silver lining, though, is that no foods are ‘off limits’. As long as I adjust my insulin, I can pretty much eat whatever I want.

But… I know that certain foods  – ones with a high glycaemic index – are more likely to cause a sudden spike in my blood sugars. I also know the more insulin I give myself, the more prone I am to putting on the pounds (and this led me, and many other diabetic teenagers, to develop diabulimia when I was younger – a condition that very nearly cost me my life).

So, I do need to watch what I eat, and I certainly need to be very aware of what I am consuming. I don’t, though, need somebody slapping a biscuit out of my hand just because I am diabetic – let me enjoy a treat, OK?!

  1. It stops you exercising

No, no, and no again! It doesn’t!

I can exercise just like anybody else, and it really helps me to better control my blood sugars, as well as my mental health. 

Before I exercise, I’ll always test my sugars. Depending on what they are, and how they’ve been behaving over the last few hours, I might have a snack before jumping on a bike or getting ready to swing those kettlebells.

I also always need to make sure that I have something sugary to hand, just in case my sugars do drop. I tend to use Lucozade, but there are plenty of other options out there.

For my own peace of mind, I make sure that whoever I am exercising with knows what I am diabetic – so they don’t think I’m slacking if I take five and have a sip on my Lucozade, or just in case anything was ever to happen. If I’m going out cycling or running on my own, I make sure that I have my phone on me.

Let’s wrap it up

Living with type 1 diabetes can be hard – really hard. But, I want everyone reading this – whether they have recently been diagnosed, have a child with diabetes, or are training with a diabetic – to know that having it doesn’t affect my ability to exercise. 

Exercise can have huge benefits for us diabetics – better control of our blood sugars, increased insulin sensitivity which reduces the amount of insulin I need, as well as lowering blood pressure, and improving our mental health.

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