person doing finger prick test for diabetes

Diabetes: Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a long-term health condition that causes an individual’s blood sugar level to become too high. When you eat food, it is broken down into glucose (sugar) that is released into the bloodstream. When your blood sugar levels increase, insulin is released from the pancreas to move the glucose from your blood into your body’s cells. This sugar is then used as an energy source. However, if you have diabetes your body may not make enough insulin or use insulin as effectively as it should. This means that your blood sugar will stay in your bloodstream instead of entering your cells, which can cause serious health problems, such as kidney disease and vision loss. 

Types of Diabetes 

There are two main types of diabetes known as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Around 5-10% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes and around 90-95% of people have type 2 diabetes [1]. 

Type 1 diabetes is said to be caused by an autoimmune reaction, where your body attacks itself, that stops your body from producing insulin. This means that if you have this type of diabetes, you will have to take insulin every day. Most people are diagnosed with this type of diabetes when they are young.

Type 2 diabetes is when your body cannot use insulin well, to keep blood sugar levels normal. This type of diabetes is usually diagnosed in adults and can develop over many years. It can be prevented or delayed by incorporating healthy changes into your lifestyle.

There is also a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy, in women who have never had diabetes. This is known as gestational diabetes and usually goes away following birth. However, it can increase the risk of health problems for your baby and the risk of you developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of diabetes include, feeling thirsty and urinating more than usual, feeling tired, losing weight without trying, reoccurring thrush, blurred vision, fruity-smelling breath, and problems with cuts and grazes healing. If you think you have diabetes your GP will conduct a urine test to check your blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar levels are higher than normal (7.8 mmol/L), you will be sent for further assessment. 

HbA1c tests are also used to assess for diabetes and monitor blood sugar levels if you have already been diagnosed with diabetes. This test tells you your average blood sugar level over the past 3 months and is important as our blood sugar levels can vary largely every day, so it provides a more complete picture of your blood glucose level.

Treating Diabetes

As previously mentioned, insulin is the treatment provided for those with type 1 diabetes. It can be taken once or twice a day, if it is long-acting, background or basal insulin. It can also be taken with food or drink, if it is fast-acting, mealtime or bolus insulin. Basal insulin gives the body the insulin it needs whether you eat or not and is designed to keep blood glucose stable between meals and overnight. Bolus insulin is taken before eating or drinking something containing carbohydrates and helps reduce the rise in blood glucose caused by the meal.

Medicine can be prescribed to people who have type 2 diabetes to keep blood sugar levels normal. This is done to reduce the risk of developing further health conditions. Adjustments to diet and being more active are also recommended to keep blood sugar levels down.

Nutrition and Type 2 Diabetes

The NHS recommends that if you have type 2 diabetes you should aim to:

  • Eat a wide range of foods, such as fruit, vegetables and some starchy carbohydrates (like pasta)
  • Eat less sugar, fat and salt
  • Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and avoid skipping meals

You should also aim to complete 2.5 hours of physical activity a week, to help lower your blood sugar level. Physical activity can be anything from speed walking, to swimming, to strenuous housework. You can read more about this on our “physical activity and its relationship to food” blog here.

If you are overweight, it may also benefit you to try to lose weight, as this will make it easier for your body to lower your blood sugar level. If you do choose to lose weight, it is recommended that you do this at a slow pace of around 0.5 to 1kg of weight loss per week, to lose weight sustainably and healthily [2]. 

Top Tips to Manage Type 2 Diabetes

  1. Limit the amount of refined sugar and salt that you consume
  2. Try switching from saturated fats to unsaturated fats
  3. Avoid skipping meals as this may lead to poor food choices at your next meal
  4. Eat a balanced diet with a wide range of foods
  5. Aim to complete 2.5 hours of physical activity a week



If you have been diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes and would like some support with how to manage the condition with diet, please contact me to discuss how I can help you.

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Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.

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