Type 2 Diabetes Basics

Do Well Be Well with Diabetes logoDiabetes is Chronic

Diabetes is serious disease that does not go away. Doctors refer to this as a “chronic” disease because it is not cured. There are two forms of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Ninety-five percent of people with diabetes have type 2.

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?

Researchers are really not sure what causes type 2 diabetes. They do know, however, some things that put people at a greater risk for getting the disease, such as:

  • Being overweight
  • Being over age 30
  • Being African American, Hispanic, or Native American
  • Giving birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
  • Having a family member with diabetes
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Having blood pressure of 130/90 or higher

Another Form of Diabetes

A second type of diabetes is called type 1. It tends to occur in children and young adults. In this type of diabetes, for unknown reasons the body totally stops producing insulin. As a result, glucose cannot get into the cells.

Controlling type 1 diabetes requires careful management by health care professionals. A person with type 1 diabetes must take insulin shots several times a day.

Complications of Diabetes

Having either type 1 or type 2 diabetes means that the body is not getting glucose or sugar into the cells. Too much glucose is staying in your blood and not getting into the cells.

If someone has too much sugar in their blood for long periods, they can experience problems, such as tiredness, loss of eyesight, kidney problems, nerve problems in their feet and other places in their body. People often first learn they have type 2 diabetes because they go to see their doctor about such problems.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Failing eyesight
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling tired
  • Having a sore throat that will not heal
  • Pains or burning in your feet
  • Other symptoms

Most people do not recognize these as symptoms of diabetes because they develop gradually, unlike for people with type 1 diabetes, who become very sick very fast.

Diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes

People are diagnosed as having diabetes if they have 126 milligrams or more of glucose per deciliter (mg/dL) in their blood after not eating for 12 hours.

Most people have diabetes for many years before they are diagnosed. In fact, it’s possible to have diabetes for 10 years before someone feels bad enough to go to a doctor for help.

Myths of Diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes did not get the disease because they have a “sweet tooth.” Overeating of anything (candy, meat, etc.) can make anyone gain weight and put them at a higher risk for diabetes, but just because they like to eat sweets does not mean that is what caused their diabetes.

There is also no such thing as a “touch of sugar” or being “borderline diabetic.” Either someone has diabetes or they don’t. It’s like being pregnant—either you’re pregnant or you’re not.

How Food Affects Your Blood

In your blood, you have glucose or sugar—all people have glucose in their blood! The word that doctors use for sugar is glucose.

The glucose or sugar in your blood comes from the food you eat. The moment you put something in your mouth, it starts breaking down. The food is further broken down into smaller parts in your stomach and small intestine, where it is taken into the blood. The glucose from the food you eat ends up in your blood. Glucose helps your cells make energy so you can move around, work and not feel tired.

Eating food raises blood glucose levels even in people without diabetes.

Your body also stores glucose in your liver to help your body through the times when you have not eaten for a while—for example, between meals and at night or any other time your body senses that more glucose is needed than can be supplied by the glucose in your blood at that moment.

When You Have Diabetes

When you have diabetes, too much glucose stays in your blood because it cannot get into your cells where it is needed. Glucose can’t get into your cells because:

  1. Your insulin is not working properly. Think of insulin as a taxi or car and glucose as its passenger. If a taxi is broken down, it can’t take you where you need to go—causing a traffic jam of glucose in your blood; or
  2. Your pancreas may not produce enough insulin, especially if you have had diabetes for a long time.

You Can Help Your Diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes can do many things to help their insulin work better, such as:

  • Eating the right foods in the right amount
  • Exercising regularly
  • Taking medication if it’s prescribed
  • Checking your blood glucose levels often. There is a recommended range for blood glucose. Keeping blood glucose in the recommended range is very important to avoid some of the problems just mentioned, such as eye and kidney problems.

American Diabetes Association Target Ranges for Blood Glucose

According to the American Diabetes Association, before meals, glucose levels should be between 90 and 130 mg of glucose per deciliter of blood.

Less than 180 mg/dl two hours after meals.

At bedtime, your blood glucose levels should be between 100 and 140 mg/dL.

Sometimes doctors will tell you that your blood glucose range may go just a little higher. If your doctor gives you a higher range, ask him or her why. It might be because you’ve had high blood glucose so long that you may need to take a while to work toward a lower level. There may be other reasons in other cases. For example, you may be on insulin and have a history of low blood sugar. If you live alone, your doctor may want you to maintain a little higher blood sugar level so it does not fall seriously low while no one is there to help you. However, it is important for you to know that these ranges are the ones recommended in the diabetes standards of care. These ranges have been shown to significantly reduce the complications of diabetes, such as vision loss and nerve problems.

What Does the mg/dL Mean?

When you look at your blood glucose reports, you will see a number such as 140 followed by mg/dL. What does this mean?

Mg/dL stands for the number of milligrams of glucose (or sugar) for every deciliter of blood; that is the way blood glucose is measured.

Most people just remember the number such as 140 and do not pay attention to the mg/dL part. These numbers are guidelines that apply to many people, but not everyone. Talk with your doctor to see what is the best level for you.

Remember, after age 45, you should have your blood sugar level checked every 3 years! Ask your doctor to include this important test in your physical exam. If your sugars are even a little high, your doctor and registered dietician can help you lower them.

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service offers FREE/low cost classes for persons with type 2 diabetes. If you want to learn more about diabetes or know of someone who would benefit from these classes, please tell them to call their local county Extension office for more information.


Written by Courtney J. Schoessow, MPH, former Extension Associate, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System.


Last updated: March 25, 2015

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