Diabetes: learn the basics

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that causes either not enough insulin to be produced by the pancreas, or the body to be resistant to the insulin that is produced. This leads to high blood sugar levels, which can lead to symptoms such as tiredness, unexplained weight loss, constant thirst, and cuts or wounds that heal slowly. You may also find that your vision blurs. There are two types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 is usually genetic and occurs when the pancreas fails to produce any insulin.
  • Type 2 is more common and occurs when the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin or your body’s cells don’t react to it.

Insulin is important for moving glucose from your blood into your cells, where it is converted into energy for your body to use.


What causes type 2 diabetes?

It is estimated that 1 in 16 people in the UK have diabetes either diagnosed or undiagnosed. 90% of the people who have diabetes in the UK have type 2 diabetes. There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing type 2 Diabetes.

  • Genetics: A family history of the condition
  • Lifestyle: Being overweight is a factor  
  • Age: as you’re more likely to develop diabetes if you’re over 40
  • Ethnicity: if you’re of Chinese, South Asian, or African-Caribbean descent you will be in a higher risk category
“The best way to prevent diabetes is to keep your weight at a healthy level and exercise regularly. If you do have diabetes then it’s important that you consider all the diet and treatment options and find what works best for you and your body by working closely with your health care team.” Dr. Matt Noble


High carb diet or low carb diet?

As obesity is one of the main factors that contributes to developing diabetes, being aware of your diet is a key element to preventing it. If you do get diabetes your diet will become even more important, because managing your sugar levels will be what you think about every day.

Think about whether you want to follow a low or high carb diet. There are many factors when deciding which type of diet is best for you, and a combination is also potentially a good option. There is a lot of debate amongst medical professionals and diabetics as to whether a high-carb, low-fat diet (HCLF) or a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF) could be the most beneficial to those with Type 2 diabetes.


High Carb Low Fat

In the past an HCLF diet was recommended to diabetics by most healthcare professionals. It works in two ways:

  • You can measure how a high carb food might raise your blood sugar levels by using the glycemic index
  • You can carb-count

This type of diet encourages the choice of nutrient-rich carbs and a reduction in fats, which means the body will be fuelling itself and creating energy using mainly carbs.

When carbs are consumed, they are either converted into glucose to be used by the body straight away or stored for later in the muscles and liver as glycogen. High carb diets may contain more vitamins and nutrients, but they can also lead to a deficiency in supplements like zinc, sodium and B12.

A high carb diet does not necessarily mean a healthy or unhealthy diet. This type of diet can include fruits, whole grains, porridge, non or low-fat dairy products, beans and non-starchy vegetables. Foods to avoid or eat in moderation while following this diet include full fat dairy products such as cheese and butter, fatty fish and meat.


Low Carb High Fat

Recently, there has been a trend towards discussion and practice of a low carb high fat diet as an alternative choice for diabetics. A low carb diet will have fewer calories, but isn’t automatically healthy.

A LCHF diet has a low insulin requirement. Often high carbohydrate foods like pasta and rice contain concentrated sugar, which can be detrimental to a diabetic diet. Diabetics who engage in this diet could experience weight loss and an improvement to their blood sugar levels, as well as lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Switching from high carb foods to lower carb foods can be a great way to lower the risk of diabetes. Even something simple like switching from white potatoes to sweet potatoes can be beneficial, as the latter contains more potassium, fibre and vitamin A. Foods which can be included on a LCHF diet include full fat dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese, eggs and butter. You can also have fatty meats and fish, vegetables and olive oil. Foods to be eaten in moderation on this diet are things like nuts, chocolate, fruit and lentils.


It’s always important to consume a minimum daily intake of 1300 calories for women or 1700 for men. Remembering to maintain high protein intake, along with low carb and high fat consumption, will help you maintain muscle while losing fat, but remember to maintain fibre and other nutrients in your diet.


Don’t change your diet without consulting a doctor. babylon GPs are available every day between 8am and 8pm in the UK, and 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday in Ireland.