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Diabetes – an overview

There’s a lot in the media these days about obesity and diabetes. But do you know what diabetes is, what it could mean for your health, and what you can do to help prevent it?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that develops when the body has a problem in producing or using the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced in an organ called the pancreas and it helps the body absorb the glucose (sugar) from your food so it can be used as energy.

When there is a problem in producing or using insulin (e.g. you have a shortage or insulin or your cells don’t respond properly to insulin), glucose stays in the blood instead of being turned into energy. This results in high blood glucose levels and can lead to serious health problems.

Overall about 1 million Australians have diabetes and it is one of the top 10 causes of death in Australia.

The different types of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. The type of diabetes a person has depends on the exact type of problem they have with producing or using insulin, and when the problem occurs.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by a problem of the immune system that stops the body from making insulin. It can come on very quickly and injections of insulin are needed to manage the condition. About 10 percent of Australians with diabetes have type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and about 90 percent of Australians with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes either don’t produce enough insulin or can’t use it properly. It can go undiagnosed for many years and may require treatment with a combination of lifestyle changes, medications and, sometimes, insulin injections. There are many factors that determine if you develop type 2 diabetes but healthy lifestyle habits can help you lower your risk.

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that develops during pregnancy. This type of diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born, but it can come back again in later pregnancies. It can also increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Gestational diabetes is often treated with diet and exercise measures, but some women will need insulin injections. About 1 in every 20 pregnant women are affected by gestational diabetes.

What problems can diabetes cause?

Diabetes and high blood glucose levels can affect many parts of the body. In the long term, untreated or uncontrolled high blood glucose (hyperglycaemia) can be very damaging to your health. It increases your risks of, and can lead to, serious complications including:

  • angina, heart attack and heart disease
  • stroke
  • kidney disease, even kidney failure
  • sexual health problems such as erectile dysfunction
  • circulation problems in the legs
  • foot ulcers and difficulties with wound healing
  • eye damage that can lead to blindness
  • infections.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes

There are a number of factors that can increase the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. These include:

  • having diabetes in the family
  • being overweight or obese, as this can interfere with the way the body produces and/or uses insulin
  • not exercising enough
  • not having a healthy diet, in particular a diet that is low in fruit and vegetables and a diet that is high in salty and sugary foods
  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • having high cholesterol levels
  • having high blood pressure levels.

Other risk factors include age, medical conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and impaired glucose tolerance, and if you’re of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander origin. And the more risk factors you have, the greater your risk.

Understanding your diabetes risk

You can get an estimate of your risk of developing type 2 diabetes using the Australian Type 2 Diabetes Risk Assessment Tool (AUSDRISK). By answering a series of 10 simple questions, the tool provides you with a ‘score’ that indicates your risk of developing type 2 diabetes within the next five years.

If you score 12 or above, you are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes and it’s recommended you discuss this risk of with your doctor.

What you can do to help lower your risk

Research has shown that changes to lifestyle habits, including increasing physical activity, eating well and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, are effective in preventing or delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes, particularly in people at high risk of developing the condition.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Even small amounts of weight loss can help reduce your risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.
  • Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Aim for at least half an hour of moderate activity most days of the week (150 minutes or more each week) to help you maintain a healthy weight and for general health.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. For good health that helps lower your risk of diabetes, you just need to eat a balanced diet that is low in saturated fat, sugar and salt, and high in fibre, vegetables and fruit. This will help you get the nutrients you need and stay in a healthy weight range for you. Many people think eating less sugar reduces your risk of developing diabetes. It’s important to understand that the problem with sugar is that it’s high in energy and can lead to weight gain, which contributes to your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Don’t smoke. Research indicates smokers have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with non-smokers. And the more you smoke, the greater the increase in risk – but if you quit, your risk can also drop.

Further information

Diabetes Australia


Australian Government Department of Health. Australian type 2 diabetes risk assessment tool (AUSDRISK). [online] [Accessed Jun 2014]Available from:

Australian Government Department of Health. Australian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. [online] 2014 [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Diabetes. [online] [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from:

Colagiuri R Girgis S Gomez M et al. National Evidence Based Guideline for the Primary Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Australia and the NHMRC: Canberra. 2009.

Diabetes Australia. [online] Available from:

International Diabetes Federation. IDF Diabetes Atlas, 6th ed. [online] 2013. [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from:

National Heart Foundation of Australia. Physical activity in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. [online] 2009 [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from:

World Health Organization (WHO). Diabetes. [online] [Accessed Jun 2014] Available from:

Last updated: 18 June 2014

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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