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Understanding the Basics of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic (long-term) condition that impacts how your body gets energy from the foods you eat, according to the CDC. Knowing the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is important because each type has unique causes, risk factors, treatment options, and management techniques.

What is diabetes?  

Your body needs energy to work and stay healthy, and it gets most of that energy from breaking down food into glucose (sugar).

When glucose enters your bloodstream, it raises your blood sugar. This tells your pancreas that it’s time to release some insulin. As the insulin travels through your body, it acts like a key, letting the glucose into your cells, where it’s converted into energy. 

In people with diabetes, there’s a gap between how much insulin you need and how much your body can make, leading to high blood sugar. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t make insulin at all. In type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes, the body still makes insulin, but it either doesn’t make enough or doesn’t use it very well

Type 1 Diabetes 

 About 5 to 10% of people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes.

In type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune reaction causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Over time, this destroys the body’s ability to make insulin

Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but it most commonly occurs in children, teens, and young adults. You may be more likely to develop type 1 diabetes if you have a parent or sibling with the condition. At this time, there’s no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can appear suddenly over several days or weeks and may include being more hungry or thirsty than usual, frequent urination, blurry vision, fatigue, and weight loss.  

Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed with blood tests to measure blood glucose. Treatment usually involves multiple daily insulin injections and self-monitoring blood sugar. 

Type 2 Diabetes 

About 90-95% of people with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.

It happens when your body doesn’t make enough insulin (insulin deficiency) or your cells don’t react to it very well (insulin resistance), leading to high blood sugar

Type 2 diabetes can develop at any age, but it’s usually diagnosed in adults who are middle-aged or older. Risk factors include

  • Family history of diabetes 
  • Lifestyle factors (age, weight, diet, physical activity level) 

You may help prevent type 2 diabetes by eating nutrient-rich foods, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly. 

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes can develop slowly over several years and include being more hungry or thirsty than usual, frequent urination, blurry vision, fatigue, and weight loss.  

Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed with blood tests to measure blood glucose. Treatment usually involves healthy lifestyle changes, sometimes accompanied by medication and insulin. 

Gestational Diabetes 

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that only develops during pregnancy, usually diagnosed between weeks 24 and 28. Most of the time, blood sugar levels can be managed by eating healthy and exercising regularly, but sometimes insulin is also needed. 

Symptoms and Complications of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes 

People with either type of diabetes may experience symptoms and complications linked to high blood sugar, including: 

  • Dry mouth 
  • Feeling very thirsty 
  • Feeling very hungry, even after eating 
  • Urinating often 
  • Blurry vision 
  • Feeling tired or weak 
  • Losing weight without trying 
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet 
  • Sores that won’t heal 

Some diabetes complications can be sudden and severe, and they require emergency treatment. These include: 

  • Diabetes-related ketoacidosis (DKA): A life-threatening diabetes complication where a lack of insulin causes the body to make too much of a chemical called ketones, which can turn blood acidic. 
  • Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS): A serious complication that happens when blood sugar levels are too high for too long. HHS leads to severe dehydration, confusion, and other life-threatening complications. 
  • Hypoglycemia: Also known as extremely low blood sugar, severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, and even death if left untreated. 

Long-term complications of type 1 and type 2 diabetes may include

  • Heart disease, heart attack, and stroke 
  • Eye damage that can lead to blindness 
  • Nerve damage that causes tingling, numbness, or pain 
  • Kidney disease 
  • Foot problems 
  • Oral health issues 

Managing Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes 

Managing type 1 and type 2 diabetes involves: 

  • Self-monitoring blood sugar levels: Don’t forget to record your measurements! They’re a great tool for making informed decisions about your diet, physical activity, and treatment.
  • Regular checkups: Here, you’ll set goals to help manage your condition , often by measuring 3 key things—A1C (your average blood sugar over the last 3 months), blood pressure, and cholesterol. Just think ABCs! 
  • Meal planning: A diabetes meal plan should include a balance of nutritious foods from all food groups, prioritizing sources of fiber, heart-healthy protein, and healthy fats. Try to avoid saturated and trans fats, high-salt (sodium) foods, and high-sugar foods. 
  • Physical activity: Regular exercise can help improve heart health, blood pressure, muscle strength, and insulin sensitivity. In people with type 2 diabetes, it may also help lower blood glucose and promote healthy weight loss. 
  • Finding your community: Supportive resources and community can be a real source of strength when living with diabetes. If you don’t know where to start, check out the American Diabetes Association’s Tools and Resources page and database of diabetes organizations and events


The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be relied on as medical advice. This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, evaluation, or treatment of a qualified health-care provider. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, or if you are seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Each individual’s dietary needs and restrictions are unique to the individual. You should consult a qualified health professional regarding health conditions or concerns, and before starting a new diet or health program. Varying factors such as product types or brands purchased can change the nutritional information in any given recipe. To obtain the most accurate representation of the nutritional information in any given recipe, you should calculate the nutritional information with the actual ingredients used in your recipe. You are solely responsible for ensuring that any nutritional information obtained is accurate. If you have or suspect you may have allergies or medical issues which may be affected by certain foods, find you may have or be experiencing side effects, you should promptly contact your health care provider. Statements within this article have not been evaluated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration.