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Please don’t say that eating sugar and sweets causes diabetes

When parents say sugar causes diabetes it can lead to an eating disorder

3 real-life stories of women whose parents warned them about diabetes (and what to do instead)

“If you eat too many cupcakes, you’ll get diabetes.”

“Chocolate milk is like drinking a tall glass of diabetes.”

“Eating that much sugar will make you diabetic like Grandma.”

Some version of this has been said to too many children to count. It’s hard to speak with an adult from Gen X down to Gen Z who hasn’t heard some version of this warning. The parents who say this aren’t trying to cause harm. In fact, they’re most likely hoping to protect their child from a serious disease. And yet these comments are both inaccurate and cause harm every day. Sugar does not cause diabetes, and many people in eating disorder recovery cite parental warnings about the link between sugar and diabetes as contributing to their disorders. 

Note: Eating disorders have biological, psychological, and social causes, so these sorts of comments alone don’t cause an eating disorder, but they can increase risk.

Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

What causes diabetes?

Diabetes is primarily caused by genetics. In fact, Type 2 diabetes has a stronger link to family history than Type 1. People who develop diabetes are usually not the first in their family to get it, and saying it’s caused by sugar is a massive oversimplification of how our bodies work. If sugar causes diabetes then everyone with a sweet tooth would have diabetes, which is not true. 

“Genes play a large role in the development of diabetes. We’re all born with challenges in our genetic code — as well as in our life circumstances — and this is one of the challenges you were dealt. Your body was vulnerable to difficulty with glucose regulation, and some combination of factors triggered that genetic propensity.”

Lindo Bacon, PhD and Judith Matz, LCSW, Diabetes Self Management

And yet social stigma persists, and parents everywhere continue to warn children not to eat too much sugar, something that is delicious and rewarding. This creates a deep and confusing fear of a disease that kids can’t even understand yet. It’s terrifying and creates cognitive dissonance. The idea that sweets, which they (of course!) love so much, could kill them is overwhelming for kids.

Does being fat cause diabetes?

Similarly, if being fat causes diabetes, then everyone who is fat would have it, which they don’t. About 10% of Americans have diabetes, yet about 65% of Americans are on the higher end of the weight scale. So clearly not all fat people get diabetes. And thin people get diabetes, too. 

A word about the word “fat”

The word fat can be used as a negative or a neutral descriptor. In its neutral form, saying fat is the same as saying thin, tall, or brown-eyed. Other words for fat bodies, such as overweight and obese, are currently considered to be stigmatizing. Many fat justice leaders have reclaimed the word fat as the preferred neutral descriptor for their bodies. As such, I typically use the word fat when referring to body weight.

However, due to our culture’s terrible history of weight-shaming, we should not call an individual fat unless we 1) are doing so kindly 2) have zero thoughts that they should lose weight; and 3) clearly have their permission to do so. And nobody should ever use fat as an insult. It’s always best to let people who live in marginalized bodies to define themselves rather than assuming a label on their behalf. And never tell a person in a larger body that they are not fat or should be proud to be fat. It’s their body and their choice to define themselves on their own terms.

In other words, being fat doesn’t mean you’ll get diabetes, and being thin doesn’t protect you from it. Genes above all, followed by lifestyle factors like stress reduction, healthy social interaction, and exercise matter far more than your weight. 

“One cupcake won’t give you diabetes and joking that it will is dangerous on two levels: It creates misinformation about this disease and furthers the stigma that acquiring diabetes is something one has control over.”

Alysse Dalessandro for Healthline

Being fat does not cause diabetes, but the fear of being fat and eating foods associated with being fat like sugar can contribute to an eating disorder. Incorrect and harmful beliefs about sugar, diabetes, and fat are all driven by weight stigma, not science.

The biggest risk is stress, not sugar

The largest environmental factor leading to diabetes is not sugar, but stress. And one of the leading causes of stress for people who are at the higher end of the weight spectrum is their weight and the fear of getting diabetes. In this way, the fear of fat and diabetes can increase the conditions most likely to trigger it.

Parents who use the threat of diabetes and fat to restrict their kids’ eating sugar mean well, but they can accidentally create a cascade of negative outcomes, including an eating disorder.

For ideas about what to say to your child if another adult says something about sugar causing diabetes to your child, here’s a great post from Zoë Bisbing, LCSW (click to view full video and post on Instagram)

Here are three real-life stories of adults who were told to avoid sugar in childhood to avoid diabetes: 

Sonja developed at eating disorder at 8 years old and is currently in treatment

My dad and his mother, who lived with us, both made regular comments that my being overweight would lead to me developing diabetes and “my feet would fall off.”  They said things like “Sugar makes you fat,” and “Being fat gives you diabetes.”

I remember feeling so uncomfortable in my body, like it was a prison I just wanted to escape. I’ve always carried extra weight and no matter how much I dieted and exercised (this was a core piece of my childhood) my body wouldn’t change. I felt betrayed by it, like there was something inherently wrong with me, and that I was trapped by a disease that was going to happen to me no matter what I did.

Comments about sugar and diabetes led to an eating disorder that started as early as age eight. I developed a very complicated love/hate relationship with food and eating that I am still trying to heal 24 years later. 

I had a very negative body image and developed body dysmorphia in high school. Because I was eating so little and exercising so much, my health was very poor. I was sick all the time and had no energy and awful moods. Now that I’m in recovery I recognize the profound health effects starvation had on my growing body and mind. I have been in treatment for 3 years now and I’m just starting to develop a healthy relationship with food and my body.

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, I would tell myself that those comments were based on my family members’ own insecurities about their own bodies and health, and it had nothing to do with me. I would also tell myself that scientifically we know that the best way to avoid conditions like diabetes is to take good care of our bodies, not neglect them. I would encourage myself to challenge my caregivers’ narrative and to find a professional to support me in finding my way to my own personal best health.

Andrea has struggled with body image and disordered eating since she was about 7 years old

I remember being about 7 and I wanted ice cream. My mom would use an ice cream scoop and scrape off the excess from the top of the scoop then serve it to me. I wasn’t allowed to just add some spoonfuls to my bowl without measuring it. She said, “You don’t want to be fat like Mama, right?” She lived in a bigger body her whole life. Mom would say “My Grandma died from diabetes, we can’t let that happen to us so we shouldn’t eat so much sugar.”

Hearing that “diabetes can kill you” scared me. At that young age I thought because I was fat and liked sugar that eventually that’s what I would die from. I would grab my belly rolls and squeeze them as hard as I could while looking in the mirror. I’m not sure what I had hoped would happen, maybe so I could make my fat body smaller.

At home I knew that I couldn’t drink sodas or eat sweets so I would go to a friend’s house and binge on whatever I wanted. 

If I could talk to my younger self I would say that there is no “bad” or “good” food. You are worthy and are so much more than your body. Don’t let anyone treat you like you are less than. Your body is amazing, it keeps you alive! 

Family and friends fueled my eating disorder by linking my weight and sugar to diabetes. If I lost weight it was always met with, “Wow what are you doing? You look great.” Now that I have children I want them to know that they are so much more than a number on a scale or a squishy belly. I WILL break the cycle. It isn’t always easy but I’m working on loving all of me. 

Marie has struggled with body image and disordered eating since childhood

My mom constantly commented on what people were eating, particularly how much sugar. When we would see people drinking a soda or eating candy, for example, she would comment that they were consuming so much sugar.  She said that sugar was “addicting” and that a bad diet, including too much sugar, gave people Type 2 diabetes. If someone had Type 2 diabetes, she would comment that a better diet would make their diabetes go away. 

I was diagnosed with insulin resistance at 20, which can be a precursor to Type 2 diabetes. My mom immediately signed me up for a personal trainer and would comment on my need to lose weight and eat less sugar. She would say I was “obsessed” with sugar on occasions where I would eat more than a small serving of dessert. When I lost weight (mainly due to my eating disorder), she would constantly tell me that my diet cured my insulin resistance. 

I felt a great sense of shame about my body. I had learned that only “fat people with bad diets” had ailments like diabetes. Her comments made me feel nervous. As a child, I was always concerned I was too fat and often felt tense and nervous.

Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

I was very concerned about my weight and what I ate in front of my mom (I still am). I have struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia since childhood. When I was in my mid-20s, I started purging and calorie restricting, to the point where I was underweight and incredibly anxious. When I was underweight, my mom would talk about how proud she was of how I had lost weight. Now that I have gained the weight back, I still struggle with shame, but through therapy and self-guided work, I am trying to heal.

My mom cared about my well-being, but it was incredibly misguided and actually harmful. I wish I could tell my younger self that my mom’s issues do not have to be mine. I’m loved just as I am. I am enough just as I am. Food is just food – not a moral judgment. 

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

See Our Parent’s Guide To Diet Culture And Eating Disorders

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