Friday, October 28, 2011

Diabetes Article in Health Magazine--Another Setback

I was initially excited when I saw an article in the November 2011 issue of Health magazine about diabetes—after all, November is American Diabetes Month!  However, once I started actually reading the article, I was appalled.  Not only was it filled with misinformation and incorrect but rampant diabetes stereotypes, it was completely insensitive.  No wonder people like the woman in the article are “embarrassed” to let others know they have diabetes!  What disappoints me the most is to see such a great opportunity for public education and awareness turned into such a misrepresentation of the disease…a misrepresentation that people with diabetes, like myself, have to fight every day to correct.
I was diagnosed last year with type 1 diabetes.  My younger sister also has type 1, and my dad (along with a lot of my extended family) has type 2.  When I was diagnosed, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about the disease, and have read countless books on the subject.  I also keep up with diabetes news and research and follow others’ diabetes blogs on a daily basis in addition to hosting my own.  In addition, I was recently appointed as a board member for the local branch of the JDRF.  Even though it’s not my paying job, diabetes advocacy is incredibly important to me.  The biggest problem I encounter, however, is not that people don’t know about the disease; it’s that what they think they know is usually incorrect—and usually, it’s due to years of exposure to myths and half-truths about the disease, thanks at least in part to media publications such as this one that further reinforce its falsehoods.
Although it is true that being overweight or obese is a risk factor for developing diabetes (at least for type 2, that is), it isn’t the be all and end all of the disease.  First of all, not everyone with diabetes is overweight.  Type 1 diabetes develops irrespective of weight or health status, and there are many people with type 2 who are of normal weight.  Furthermore, what many sources neglect to point out is that you have to have the genetic predisposition and other risk factors to develop the disease—therefore, not all people who are overweight will develop diabetes.  Secondly, losing weight is not a magical “cure” for the disease.  I have a real problem with people using the word “reverse” in relation to the disease, because “reversing” diabetes is simply not possible.  Remission is a better word, because it at least acknowledges that if you gain the weight back, change your activity level, or become ill, the symptoms of the disease will return.  What is most important to note, however, that even in symptom “remission,” the disease is still very much there.  Diabetes is a progressive disease, and insulin resistance (the main disease mechanism of type 2 diabetes) increases with age.  Even those who are initially able to completely manage their diabetes with weight loss might eventually have to pursue more aggressive treatment options as the natural progress of the disease occurs.  Failing to recognize this is simply dangerous, because it leads people to believe that once their disease is well-managed, it will never be a problem for them again.  I truly believe that this leads a lot of people with type 2 diabetes to not get the proper care and treatment that they need, because they then fail to give their disease the attention it requires.  Therefore, to call weight loss a “groundbreaking new way” to treat diabetes is not only ignorant (weight loss has been used as a part of treatment plans for type 2 diabetes for years), it is also incredibly irresponsible—and to call the woman in the article a “former diabetic” only serves to reinforce this dangerous fallacy.
Articles like this one are responsible for supporting incorrect and negative ideas about diabetes that those of us living with the disease are forced to combat on a daily basis.  The statement that “Most people with type 2 diabetes could actually reverse it if they lose enough weight” is especially harmful, because it bolsters the notion that diabetes is a “fat, lazy person’s” disease that could be controlled if only they would work hard enough.  This stereotype is not only hurtful and extremely insensitive; it also has the potential for damaging fundraising efforts…after all, why contribute to diabetes research if it’s something people can “cure” themselves if only they’d work hard enough?  For those of us with type 1, especially children, this typecast is particularly harmful.  Many people do not understand the differences between the two types of diabetes, and all of these ideas could lead to dangerous non-management of the disease.  There is also a growing problem among adolescents with type 1 in which patients will purposefully withhold insulin in order to lose weight.  This leads to dangerously high blood sugars that force the breakdown of muscle and fat, but can also cause diabetic ketoacidosis and other complications.
These are the reasons I felt compelled to write such a lengthy, detailed letter...a letter that was too long to actually send to the editor, of course!  Articles on disease awareness (especially in major publications) are wonderful, but only if they contain accurate information.  In the future, I beg all magazines to please keep this in mind when undertaking such ventures!  Diabetes awareness and education is achieved one person at a time, but so are harmful setbacks.  I hope that from now on, all publications will make an effort to be part of the former.

For those of you who are interested in reading the article in its entirety, it begins on page 95 of the November 2011 issue of Health.  I couldn't find it online, otherwise I would have linked to it here!


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