Diabetes now affects 4 million people in the UK we look at myths associated with type 2 and why south Asian people are prone to it.


People often say to me ‘You don’t look like a diabetic’. I don’t suppose I do.  You don’t necessarily have to be obese, unhealthy and unfit to have the chronic condition, which has once again hit the headlines with new figures.

There are now 4 million people with diabetes in the UK. And people of South Asian origin are six times more prone to developing it, than their white British counterparts.

I am one of the 10 per cent of the four million diagnosed who have Type 1 diabetes. I need insulin injections, as my pancreas does not work. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still function a little bit, and are helped with tablets, or in some cases extra insulin, where needed. Insulin is need to balance the amount of food you eat and stops sugar levels becoming too high, which in turn if left high for a long time, can cause complications.

Dr Mahendra Patel, CEO of the South Asian Health Foundation
Dr Mahendra Patel, CEO of the South Asian Health Foundation

Diabetes expert Dr Mahendra Patel, (pictured to the right) is senior academic of the University of Huddersfield, and Chief Executive Officer of the South Asian Health Foundation, based in Birmingham, which works to promote better health care among Asian people.

Dr Patel said there was an extra high risk factor for people who are south Asian: “The risk can be as much as six times higher than a white British person, and can be linked to their genetics, culture, traditions and lifestyle, which covers diet, exercise and habits.

“Work is going on to help educate people. Having diabetes is not something to be ashamed of, as it can often be in Asian communities. The right management and care means that people can live a relatively normal life.”

He said some Asian families were often ashamed of the condition, and in one case he knew of, they did not tell a prospective marriage partner, that their relative had it, in case it was seen as a ‘bad’ match. They tried to hide the condition and lived with it in secret until it became impossible to hide.

“Factors associated with people of South Asian origin such as their diet, lifestyle, and things like sweet treats, like cakes and Indian sweets for young children, or for example four sugars in a cup of sweet tea, plus the use of ghee in cooking, added to genes, and not enough exercise, do not mix well, and add up to create a significant risk factor.” Dr Mahendra Patel

“People can be ashamed of the condition. All that is needed is small steps to manage it. Or better still make early changes to avoid getting it in the first place, said Dr Patel.

Based on 2014-15 GP patient data Diabetes UK says there are 4.05 million people with the condition, including 3.5 million adults who have been diagnosed, an increase of 65% over the past decade and around 120,000 more than the previous year. There are thought to be 549,000 with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. Many of them are of south Asian origin.

Melanie Davies, professor of diabetes medicine at the University of Leicester and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust, said that numbers with the condition were growing across the world, often outstripping estimates.

As such, she said, the 4 million figure is ‘not surprising but quite alarming’. There are also lots of people at very high risk of developing diabetes over the next five to 10 years. The large driver is the increase in the number of people with type 2 diabetes, associated with obesity in the population.

“We know that we have an ageing population so of course there are lots of ageing people with diabetes, but we’re seeing in the [Leicester] clinic, teenagers and even children with type 2 diabetes and we wouldn’t have seen this 10 years ago. Even under the age of 30 there are many more people developing it than before and having it for a longer time, so there are more complications.”

A lot of tasty Asian food, including curries, breads and rice, are full of carbohydrates, which can cause weight increase if not eaten in moderation. And Indian sweets and desserts are mostly full of sugar.

Dr Patel added: “A south Asian person is three to six times more likely to develop diabetes and shockingly, the younger generation are at higher risk due to the lifestyle of today’s society. Small things add up such as playing computer games, taking less exercise, eating a few more sweets, smoking, apathy, and a diet which is high in fat. These are all modifiable risk factors.

“Children should not be rewarded regularly with sweets for doing well or given fizzy pop full of sugar as a habit. It is better to start healthy habits as young as possible.”

“Within the Asian culture I have noticed a few myths which circulate, such as injections are bad for you and can mean you are about to die. This is not true, at this stage you need an injection of insulin to stay alive.

“Combine this with different cultural attitudes and different religions and the fact that some communities are ‘hard to reach’, then type 2 is reaching crisis levels.”

Diabetes blood testing kitThere are many community programmes going on with talks and visits to places like mosques and community centres, in various languages, as well as joint working with Imams.

Dr Patel said: “Small changes are key to tackling this. Whether it is dropping from four sugars in a cup of tea to just two, then that is a good start. A little more exercise, such as a walk in the park, or reducing intake of sugary food, is all excellent.”

The National Audit Office recently criticised the poor standard of diabetes care, and Diabetes UK says that unless this is remedied more people will end up experiencing potentially preventable diabetes-related complications such as blindness, kidney failure and amputation. The charity says more than 24,000 people a year with diabetes die before their time.

Diabetes UK’s chief executive, Chris Askew, said: “The need to tackle this serious health condition has never been so stark or so urgent. Tragically, we are continuing to see too many people with diabetes suffering serious complications, and even dying before their time, and we know that key reasons for this are that they are being denied both the care and access to education that would help them to manage their condition well.”

Symptoms of diabetes

Raising awareness and urging people to be tested is being promoted by the NHS through doctor’s surgeries and health support groups and centres. Many people ignore the symptoms, which can take a while to become apparent in type 2.

  • urinating more often than usual, particularly at night
  • feeling very thirsty
  • feeling very tired
  • unexplained weight loss
  • itching around the genital area, or frequent episodes of thrush
  • cuts or wounds that heal slowly
  • blurred vision (caused by the lens of the eye becoming dry)

These are all symptoms of a higher than normal sugar level. If not enough insulin is being made, then the sugar in your body, from food containing sugars and carbohydrates, cannot be processed. See your GP for advice.

More at www.diabetes.org.uk or the South Asian Health Foundation www.sahf.org.uk