What Kind of Diabetes Do I Have?

Man injecting himself with Insulin pen injector

It can be confusing and frightening to be diagnosed with diabetes, but understanding what type of diabetes one has and how to deal with it can make a person feel better, both emotionally and physically. It is important for people with diabetes to take their condition seriously -- even if they feel fine.

What Is Diabetes?

If a person has diabetes, his or her body is unable to either make enough insulin or to use insulin properly.

Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps the body move sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the cells of the body. Without insulin, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and cannot enter cells.

Types of Diabetes

People with prediabetes have blood sugar levels that are higher than normal, but not quite as high as those with diabetes. Prediabetes is a warning sign to make lifestyle changes that can help prevent type 2 diabetes. According to the CDC, more than 50 million people in the United States have prediabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. It occurs when a body’s immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. This causes the pancreas to stop making insulin or to make too little. Type 1 diabetes is more common among whites than people of other races.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common, affecting almost 21 million people in the United States, according to the CDC.

It occurs when a person’s body can’t properly use the insulin it makes, a condition called insulin resistance. This can happen if one is overweight, because body fat makes it harder to use the insulin one’s body produces. Other risk factors include inactivity, increased age, race and a family history of type 2 diabetes.

Sometimes, type 2 diabetes strikes for unknown reasons.

Old Terms for Diabetes Aren't Relevant Anymore

Type 1 diabetes used to be known as Juvenile Diabetes, but more and more adults are being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes was known as Adult Onset Diabetes as little as a few years ago. More children and teens are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as childhood obesity skyrockets. The term "sugar diabetes" is no longer used either.

Gestational diabetes occurs when blood sugar levels during pregnancy are higher than prepregnancy levels. The exact causes aren’t known, but some experts think that the hormones produced by the placenta may interfere with the mother’s ability to use the insulin her body produces. This type of diabetes needs to be controlled so the baby isn’t affected, but since most women are screened during pregnancy, gestational diabetes is usually caught early and the baby isn't affected.


Two different tests can be used to help determine what type of diabetes a person has. The fasting plasma glucose test (FPG) is a blood test that measures blood glucose or blood sugar levels after fasting for at least eight hours. For the oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), the blood sugar level is tested after drinking a standardized glucose-rich drink.

Blood sugar levels are then tested several times over a few hours. The results of both these tests are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

What to Do When Diabetes Is Diagnosed

Although receiving a diagnosis of diabetes can be frightening, it can also be viewed as an opportunity to embrace a healthier lifestyle and to take control of one’s life and overall well-being.

If a person has type 1 diabetes, he or she will need insulin each day. If one has type 2, gestational or prediabetes, they might be able to improve with lifestyle modifications including diet, exercise and weight loss, although medication -- which may or may not include insulin -- might be required.

Keeping Blood Sugar Levels under Control

Testing blood sugar levels and keeping them in the range set by one’s health care team is the first step. Research has shown consistently that keeping blood sugar levels well controlled can help minimize the risk of complications. Tight blood sugar control can drastically reduce the chances of developing diabetes-related eye, kidney and nerve diseases. For more information, see the American Diabetes Association summary of the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT).

People can control type 1 diabetes if they balance diet, exercise and insulin. If they have one of the other types of diabetes, they may be able to control their blood sugar with just diet and exercise.

Dealing with Food

Healthy eating can help a person lose weight and control their diabetes. Carbohydrates (found in grains, pastas, fruits and some vegetables) can raise blood sugar levels, but some foods raise them more sharply than others. Choosing complex carbohydrates (found in beans, whole grains and vegetables) is best. Even if a diabetic is not overweight, it is important that they follow a heart-healthy diet to prevent high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Adding Physical Activity

Diabetics also need to incorporate physical activity into their lives. Walking just 30 minutes a day, a few days a week, can make a difference. Exercise helps muscles to better use insulin, which in turn keeps blood sugar levels lower.

Coping With it All

There may be times when balancing food, exercise and medication seems a bit overwhelming. There may also be times when reading about potential complications is a bit scary.

Rest assured that others feel the same way.

Not every day can be perfect. Diabetics should work with their doctor to set goals they can achieve. Consider joining a support group to help cope with diabetes and the feelings it can bring.


"Pre-Diabetes." American Diabetes Association. American Diabetes Association. 24 Aug. 2007 <http://www.diabetes.org/pre-diabetes.jsp>.

"Gestational Diabetes." American Diabetes Association. American Diabetes Association. 22 Aug. 2007 <http://www.diabetes.org/gestational-diabetes.jsp>.

"Diabetes Overview." National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Sep. 2006. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 24 Aug. 2007 <http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/overview/>

"Am I At Risk for Type 2 Diabetes?" National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Dec. 2006. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 22 Aug. 2007 <http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/riskfortype2/index.htm>.

“Definition of Oral Glucose Tolerance Test.” Medicinenet.com. 10 Feb. 2001. Medicinenet.com. 23 Aug. 2007 <http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=16194>

"Type 2 Diabetes." Medline Plus. 22 May 2007. U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. 24 Aug. 2007 <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000313.htm>.

"National Diabetes Fact Sheet." Diabetes Data & Trends. 2005. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Sep 2007 http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/ddtstrs/template/ndfs_2005.pdf

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