Three years ago Tom Hanks announced he was a Type 2 diabetic, a diagnosis that left a lot of people scratching their heads as he doesn’t look like what one might consider the typical diabetic. He certainly isn’t obese and probably isn’t overweight either. Isn’t diabetes supposed to be a disease of junk food binges and 64-ounce sodas? Apparently the answer is yes and no.
At the time, Hanks announced his illness in the positive way you’d expect from the guy from Big (or Woody from Toy Story, depending on your age). “Yep, I have #2 diabetes. Type 1 is very serious. Type 2 I can manage with good habits. I shall,” he tweeted. Later he added wryly, “You’ve just got to lose weight and exercise a lot and change everything you eat and never ever ever ever ever have any fun whatsoever.”
With that he embarked on the difficult journey of monitoring his blood sugar, exercising and watching every bite he ate. He’s in good company as the Centers for Disease Control reports that over 29 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes and an additional 86 million — more than one in three U.S. adults — have prediabetes, where their blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be classified as Type 2 diabetes. And while one of the symptoms is being overweight, you certainly don’t have to be.
“Much has been said in recent years about the strong connection between obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It is true that about 85 percent of the people who develop Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, but as the American Diabetes Association points out on its website, most overweight people never develop Type 2 diabetes, and many people with Type 2 diabetes are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight,” Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., natural health guru and author of Eating Well for Optimum Health explained on his website.
This misconception means that people often overlook the other risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, like aging, a lack of exercise, genetics, high blood pressure, smoking and even a racial predisposition (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are more prone to the illness), according to Weil.
Despite Hanks’ dedication to cleaning up his diet (mostly), his health problems are worsening, which highlights another lesser-known issue with diabetes. Surprisingly, the long-term health risks are more frequent and more serious for “normal-weight” people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes than they are for those who are overweight or obese, said Weil. It’s all about how your body uses insulin to regulate your blood sugar and having high levels of body fat and not exercising can make you less sensitive to insulin — regardless of the number on the scale.
Symptoms of Type 2 diabetes include frequent urination, extreme thirst, hunger, fatigue, blurry vision and tingling in your fingers or toes. But, the CDC cautions, many times there are no symptoms or they are very mild, particularly in the early stages of the disease when it’s most easily treated. This is why it’s extremely important that anyone who is at risk for diabetes gets their blood sugar monitored, even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms and already live a healthy lifestyle as some risk factors (like genetics and race) are out of your control. Thankfully the test is can be quickly done with a finger prick or a blood draw at your annual doctor’s check-up. The CDC warns that untreated diabetes puts you at a high risk for serious health complications including vision loss, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, amputation of toes, feet or legs and even premature death.
So what does Hanks’ experience mean for the rest of us? A healthy diet (particularly one low in sugar), plenty of exercise and enough sleep are important for people of all shapes and sizes because diabetes doesn’t care what you weigh. Being thinner doesn’t give you a pass on a healthy lifestyle!