What Is Sugar Diabetes?

An Older Term for a Current Disease

Sugar diabetes is an outdated and informal name for diabetes mellitus—the broad term for type 1 and type 2 diabetes. People used it to identify the disease where sugar levels were abnormally high instead of diabetes insipidus (a condition characterized by extreme thirst and urination).

If it seems like an old-fashioned term, consider that diabetes has been around since ancient times and has appeared in just about every culture. Until terms were standardized, diabetes could be called just about anything.

This article explains the history of the disease, its name, and why sugar diabetes is no longer used.

Woman with diabetes testing device
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A Brief History of Diabetes

Diabetes as a known condition has been around since ancient times. Here is a brief timeline of the disease:

  • 1552 BC: The physician Hesy-Ra wrote the first mention of a symptom of diabetes (frequent urination) on Egyptian papyrus.
  • 250 BC: Apollonius of Memphis coined the term diabetes.
  • 11th century AD: The word mellitus—Latin for honey—was added to the term diabetes. At the time, diabetes was diagnosed by tasting the urine to see if it was sweet.
  • The 1800s: A test was developed to detect sugar in the urine.
  • The early 1900s: Several diabetes diet treatments were rolled out. These included a whiskey and black coffee "cleanse" followed by a restrictive diet (often leading to starvation) and an "oat-cure," consisting of frequent doses of 1:1 oats to butter mixture.
  • 1929: Insulin was produced and distributed for the first time.
  • 1950: The diabetic food exchange system was first developed.
  • 1959: Type 1 and type 2 diabetes were distinguished and categorized.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • 34.2 million Americans (about 10% of the population) are living with diabetes.
  • Of people with diabetes, 5-10% of them have type 1.
  • Type 2 diabetes is more common, affecting 90-95% of people with diabetes.
  • 88 million American adults (about 30% of the population) have prediabetes.

The History of the Term Diabetes

"Diabetes" is a Greek word that means "one that straddles" or urinates frequently. The Latin term "mellitus" means "honey" or honey taste. So translated, the word for diabetes becomes "one who pees a lot of honey-tasting urine." 

An ancient Greek physician coined the term "diabetes." Then, in the 1600s, an English doctor coined "mellitus." Even so, the term "diabetes mellitus" didn't come into our lexicon until fairly recently.

"Diabetes mellitus" and the original terms used to describe type 1 and type 2 diabetes were not widely accepted standard classifications for diabetes until the 1980s. Likewise, "Type 1" and "type 2" did not become the accepted standard terms until relatively recently.

In a 2001 study, researchers asked 423 participants what terms they preferred to use for diabetes. The terms "sugar diabetes," "sugar," or "high sugar" were preferred by 11.7% of participants.

In fact, in some studies about diabetes, researchers used the term "sugar diabetes" instead of "diabetes mellitus." This is especially true in studies from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Who Uses the Term Sugar Diabetes?

Most of the time, people who use the term "sugar diabetes" are older and may have parents who were immigrants. However, the phrase is sometimes still used in rural communities (and may even be used by doctors in these communities). It is also common in southern African-American communities.

People in other countries have identified diabetes with words in their own languages. Translated into English, the terms include: "I have sugar," "sugar trouble," "sugar problem," "sugar disease," "sugar sickness," "sugar," "the sugar," "have the sugars," "sweet blood." Many of these terms are still in use in other countries.

Summary

Sugar diabetes is an outdated term used by some people to refer to diabetes mellitus. The colloquial term is meant to describe the types of diabetes that are characterized by high sugar levels.

Diabetes has been a known condition since ancient times. Today, about 10% of Americans have diabetes.

Diabetes is classified by type—type 1, type 2, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes.

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  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020. Last reviewed February 11, 2020.