The Effects of Diabetes on Health, and How Diet Can Help

Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by a dysfunction in blood glucose regulation and usage. Either the pancreas cannot make enough insulin to control blood sugar, or the body’s cells cannot properly access it.

How common is diabetes? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are 30.3 million diagnosed diabetics in America (as of 2015.) That is 9.4% of the U.S. population. The effects of diabetes on health are numerous and severe, as hundreds of millions of people know from firsthand experience.An image of a doctor pointing on information on a computer screen to her patient.

Since every organ system can suffer the effects of diabetes, it is a good bet most of these individuals have had diabetes-related health problems. In fact, millions of those people suffering from diabetes in 2015 may not even be alive today. After all, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death.

Effects of diabetes on the U.S. population

But the 30.3 million people diagnosed with diabetes are only part of the story. According to CDC,  84.1 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes. With prediabetes, blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.

Though it sounds harmless, prediabetes itself can severely affect your health and well-being. Research shows that it can increase the risk for many health conditions, including heart disease. Also, prediabetes often progresses to full-blown within 5 – 10 years if not properly treated.

In addition to the 84.1 million people with prediabetes, however, another 8.1 million Americans may be undiagnosed diabetics, unaware of their conditions. This increases the effects of diabetes on their health even more because they are not taking steps to regulate their blood sugar levels or treat their condition.

As you might guess by these numbers, the effects of diabetes on the U.S. medical system are staggering. For instance, according to a report issued by the American Diabetic Association, those with diabetes have higher rates of hospitalization compared to people without diabetes in all age groups in the general population. In 2014 alone, 7.2 million people in the U.S. were discharged from the hospital with diabetes as a listed diagnosis.

Though tragic, the effects of diabetes on health are not hard to understand when you know what diabetes does to the body.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disease in which levels of blood glucose, also called blood sugar, are too high. After you eat, blood glucose levels rise. The pancreas releases the hormone insulin to shuttle glucose to cells to be stored as fat or used for energy. As the cells receive glucose, blood sugar levels return to normal. But if your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or if your body doesn’t use insulin correctly, the glucose stays in your bloodstream. This results in elevated blood glucose levels, eventually becoming diabetes.

Types of Diabetes

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leaving the pancreas with the ability to produce little or no insulin.

Once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood or early adulthood. Approximately 5% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes in the U.S. are type 1. According to the American Diabetes Association, 125 million people in the U.S. suffer from type 1 diabetes.

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, managing blood sugar levels through diet is achievable, and it can even help reduce reliance on insulin and diabetes medications.

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Causes of type 1 diabetes

  • Family History: Like many diseases, the risk of developing type 1 diabetes increases if you have a close family member — such as a parent or sibling — with the disease.
  • Genes: The risk of developing type 1 diabetes increases if you have variants of certain genes crucial to the immune system.
  • Exposure to viruses: Experts believe exposure to a virus for someone who has a genetic predisposition for type 1 diabetes could trigger the development of this disease.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes — the most common form — is a condition in which the body does not use insulin well. The cells typically become resistant to insulin and no longer accept it, or the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes because it was almost always an “adult-only” disease. The name was changed when increasing numbers of children and adolescents started developing the disease.

Causes of type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes usually develops because of a combination of factors. Here are the most common ones:

Poor-quality diet

As type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder, your diet has a huge effect on whether you develop this disease. The standard American diet consisting primarily of ultra-processed foods, starchy carbs, and refined sugars has a hugely negative effect on blood sugar levels.

These foods have no fiber to slow their absorption into the bloodstream, which causes huge spikes in your blood glucose levels. If you eat a steady diet of these foods, your blood sugar levels are always surging — spiking high, and then 20 minutes later, crashing to the ground. With so much glucose going into your bloodstream, your pancreas is always releasing insulin to take care of it.

After decades of glucose and insulin playing tag in your bloodstream, your cells become resistant to insulin. They no longer recognize insulin because it’s always around. Eventually, you develop type 2 diabetes. And eating a high-starch diet is one food group that can do that. This is not just theory; it has been borne out in research. One 2010 study, for instance, showed higher-starch consumption to be associated with a 23% increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, a more recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found those who improved the quality of their diet alone reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes by around 20% — without losing weight or increasing physical activity. (Improving the quality of diet means eating more fruits and vegetables, and less sweetened beverages and heavily processed foods, for example.)

Being obese

Obesity is the single biggest risk factor for type 2 diabetes. To say there is a link between obesity and diabetes is an understatement. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 90% of those who are obese will eventually develop type 2 diabetes. In addition, studies show approximately 90% of diabetics are obese.

The new term “diabesity” has been coined to show the interrelationship between obesity and diabetes. These two diseases are symptoms of the same underlying cause — insulin resistance.

Studies show that obesity both causes insulin resistance and is caused by insulin resistance.

Leading a sedentary lifestyle

According to the World Health Organization, leading a sedentary lifestyle is a major cause of death and disability — from the effects of diabetes and other diseases.

Many studies show physical activity is an important factor in type 2 diabetes prevention. Research indicates insulin sensitivity increases with physical activity, helping to prevent insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 diabetes.

And this physical activity does not necessarily mean planned exercise workouts. Rather, studies show that accumulated movements during the day from work, household chores, leisure activities, etc., positively affect insulin sensitivity. In other words, any movement is better than none at all when it comes to preventing type 2 diabetes.

If you already have type 2 diabetes, however, physical activity will also help your body burn excess glucose, helping to regulate your blood sugar levels.


In the past few years, researchers have discovered that inflammation could be the root cause of most diseases. That certainly seems to be the case for type 2 diabetes.

There are many theories as to why inflammation contributes to type 2 diabetes. For instance, many studies have shown excess fat accumulation around the belly increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and other conditions. Studies indicate these fat cells produce chemicals that lead to inflammation. This inflammation then contributes to insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

New research is also showing that neurological inflammation may cause multiple aspects of metabolic syndrome, leading to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Family history

Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes increases your risk of developing this disease, too.

Effects of diabetes on health

The effects of diabetes are varied and can impact almost every organ of the body. Here are some of the most common health complications of diabetes.

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Eye diseases
  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Nerve damage
  • Skin problems
  • Osteoporosis

Avoiding diabetes with these dietary solutions

The best way to reduce or eliminate the effects of diabetes on your health — or to prevent the disease entirely — is to start with your diet.

Gradually reduce and eliminate these foods from your diet:

Refined carbs and sugar

Nothing destabilizes your blood sugar levels like refined carbs and sugar. Because refined carbs have been stripped of almost all their fiber and nutrients, your body breaks them down into glucose easily. The glucose enters your bloodstream rapidly, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. (Sugary beverages, such as sodas and fruit juices, are even worse because they go straight into the bloodstream.)

An excessive amount of insulin is then released, which tries to bring all this glucose to the cells too quickly. They are overwhelmed. If this happens too often, the cells become resistant to insulin.

Examples of refined carbs include white flour, white rice, white bread, and pasta.


Grains are carbohydrates that are rapidly broken down by the body. They are turned into glucose and hit your bloodstream within minutes, causing a spike in your blood sugar levels.

In addition, grains that contain gluten — such as wheat — can cause intestinal inflammation. This can dysregulate the hormones leptin and cortisol, destabilizing blood sugar levels.

Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are manufactured foods that have been stripped of most of their fiber content and nutrients. They contain substances not used in “normal” cooking, such as preservatives, additives, artificial colorings, emulsifiers, etc.

A recent study found more than half of the average American’s daily calories consist of ultra-processed foods and that 90% of added sugar consumption comes from these foods. It is probably no accident, then, that the rates of type 2 diabetes have been climbing along with our dependence on and fondness for ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods have the same effect on the body as refined carbs. Their lack of fiber means quick glucose absorption into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Plus, the sugars and chemicals in ultra-processed foods are toxic to the body and cause inflammation, another factor that increases the risk for type 2 diabetes.

The best way to avoid diabetes? Add these foods to your diet!

The best way to avoid the effects of diabetes is to add SANE foods to your diet. These foods will stabilize blood sugar levels, helping prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes. If you have type 1 diabetes, you can still avoid the effects of diabetes by eating these foods. They will enable you to have better blood sugar control.

Here are the foods to add to your diet to avoid the effects of diabetes.

An image of water being poured into a glass on a table. Non-starchy vegetables

10+ servings per day

Non-starchy vegetables contain high amounts of antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce inflammation that can lessen your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. They are also loaded with fiber that slows glucose absorption into the bloodstream. This prevents blood sugar spikes.

Nutrient-dense proteins

3-5 servings per day

Nutrient-dense proteins also slow glucose absorption into the bloodstream, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. It also is very filling and satisfying.

Whole-food fats

3-6 servings per day

Whole-food fats work with non-starchy vegetables and nutrient-dense proteins to regulate blood sugar levels. They are satisfying, and when you eat whole-food fats in place of starchy carbs and sugars, your body will start burning its own fat stores.

SANE, or diabetes?

When you live SANEly, you don’t have to worry about the effects of diabetes. Eating SANE foods, getting plenty of sleep, taking time to de-stress daily…you got this!!!

Next step: End diabetes with SANE

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