Health

What not to say to someone with diabetes (and what to say instead)

SALT LAKE CITY — November is National Diabetes Awareness Month. More than 30.3 million Americans have diabetes, according to the CDC, and chances are you know someone — or are someone — with diabetes.

As a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, I’ve seen and heard how well-meaning family members, friends, co-workers and even strangers can unintentionally make judgmental comments to someone with diabetes that are based off of myths or stereotypes. Here are some common misjudgments people with diabetes receive, along with facts and advice on what could be said instead.

Trust me when I say people with diabetes are always thinking about what they are eating and are frequently made aware of things they “shouldn’t” be eating. Simply because someone has diabetes doesn’t ban them from eating certain foods ever again. They just have to make sure it fits into their overall eating plan, just like everyone else in the world does. Diabetes doesn’t mean never eating sugar or carbs; it means balancing blood sugar levels with food, medications and physical activity.

Unless you are a part of their health care team it’s best to avoid analyzing every food that passes their lips. Stop being the food police and offer support and positive encouragement instead. Make healthy food choices yourself and have healthy food options available when sharing a meal. Say something like, “Hey, I made this delicious soup, would you like some?”

I’ll say this once: sugar does not cause diabetes! Diabetes is a complicated disease and has many risk factors. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system attacks the cells that make insulin. Genetics, environment and other unexplained compenents are postulated as risk factors for Type 1 diabetes and there is no known way to prevent it. Type 2 diabetes has many risk factors, including genetics, lifestyle, environment and other unknown factors. Although studies have shown that some people may be able to prevent or delay Type 2 diabetes through different means, there is no single cause for Type 2 diabetes.

Instead of postulating as to why someone has diabetes, show empathy and ask for understanding. Something along the lines of, “I don’t know much about diabetes. Could you tell me some of what you know?” is a great place to start.

There is no good or bad kind of diabetes. You cannot base the severity of someone’s disease simply from the medication they take. People with Type 1 diabetes have to take insulin every day in order to survive because their bodies are no longer able to make it. People with Type 2 diabetes still make insulin, however, the disease can change over time and along with that, the medication needs may change as well. Each person with diabetes is unique and works with their health care team to determine the best foods, activity and medications to keep their blood sugars in a healthy range.

Don’t tell someone they are bad because of the medication they take. Try saying something more positive like, “Diabetes seems very complicated. I’m glad there are medications available to help keep you healthy.”

This statement may not be ill-intended, but calling someone a “diabetic” labels them as their chronic disease. While some people with diabetes don’t mind the terminology, others find it offensive or stigmatizing. Diabetes does not define people with it, they are much more than that.

Talk to your family member or friend as someone who is their own person who happens to have a chronic illness. Instead of labeling someone as diabetic say, “I didn’t know you have diabetes.”

No need to start telling diabetes horror stories. People with diabetes are already very familiar with the possible complications of the disease. Numerous improvements in diabetes care have greatly decreased the rates of complications these days. By self-monitoring and working closely with their health care team, people with diabetes are able to live a full and healthy life without complications from the disease.

Instead of talking, try listening. Ask how their day was or say something like, “Tell me how your basketball game went yesterday.”

Spouting off medical advice and nutrition claims you saw on the internet or overheard at the gym is ill-advised. While we wait in earnest for new advances in diabetes care and treatment, there is currently no known cure for diabetes. If fad diets and hyped-up supplements promoted as “cures” really worked, then there would be a lot less people with diabetes.

Some vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements may adversely interact with medications people with diabetes are already taking. But it’s always best for them to talk with a member of their health care team before starting anything new. Unless you are your friend or family member’s doctor, avoid giving medical advice. Instead, talk about the weather, the latest episode of your favorite TV show or give them a compliment on their new haircut.

Really not helping here. The reality for someone with diabetes is there’s going to be some pokes and prods. Even if they have an insulin pump or continuous glucose monitor there will still be some lancets and needles involved. It isn’t easy but I’m positive people with diabetes think living with some pokes is much better than the alternative.

Be grateful you don’t have this trial in life, and provide support if your friend or family member appears they need it. “You are a strong and capable person. I’m glad you are my friend,” is something nice to say instead.

Blood sugar levels are one of the major factors when deciding on a course of action for diabetes care and treatment. However, blood sugar levels do not indicate success or failure. They’re one of many variables monitored to give feedback. Blood sugar levels can rise for a number of reasons — some of which are beyond a person’s control, such as stress and illness.

Avoid commenting on blood sugar levels unless you are asked. Instead of telling your friend they did something wrong, extend support and positive encouragement. Saying, “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” is a great way to do that.


Brittany Poulson

About the Author: Brittany Poulson

Brittany Poulson is a Utah registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. She shares her passion for health, food and nutrition on her blog, www.yourchoicenutrition.com, where she encourages you to live a healthy life in your unique way.


Editor’s Note: Anything in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended, nor should it be interpreted, to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition; Any opinions, statements, services, offers, or other information or content expressed or made available are those of the respective author(s) or distributor(s) and not of KSL. KSL does not endorse nor is it responsible for the accuracy or reliability of any opinion, information, or statement made in this article. KSL expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on the content of this article.

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