Misrepresentation of Type 1 Diabetes in the Media

First published: June 2020  – Updated: February 2023

Diabetes is often thought to be a disease affecting overweight people who eat too much sugar. However, the reality for people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) is generally quite different. These misconceptions might be brought about by the misrepresentation of T1D on television, in movies and on social media. 

The differences and similarities between T1D and type 2 diabetes (T2D) and their respective complications and treatments are often misunderstood. As a result, facts are traded for stereotypes that are all over the media and can negatively affect people with T1D. 

We recently published the first study to explore how T1D is represented in North American movies and television shows. We discuss the consequences of presenting erroneous and damaging myths in the media, and the potential impact on people with T1D.

Here are the main points.

The most common misrepresentations

The causes, symptoms, and management of T1D have often been misrepresented in the media (e.g., television shows, movies, newspaper articles, and even public health campaigns). These inaccurate portrayals lead to the spreading of myths and misinformation about T1D that contribute to stigmatization.

Here are the most common errors:

  • The cause of T1D. A common misconception is that T1D is caused by poor eating habits. For example, in the movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, T1D is called “the sugar disease,” and Hansel’s condition is attributed to her eating too many sweets as a child. 
  • The differences between T1D and T2D. There is a common misconception that T1D and T2D are just the same. This “stigma by association” is common among people with T1D.
  • T1D symptoms and management. Many movies and television shows, such as The Walking Dead and Con Air, feature a character who becomes weak or passes out, suggesting they have low blood sugar. However, the characters never measure their blood sugar and are given insulin, rather than fast-acting sugar, as a treatment. To add to this common misconception, TV shows such as Hannah Montana and The Big Bang Theory perpetuate the stereotype that people with T1D should never eat any sugary foods. 
  • The burden of T1D. The media fail to show the long-term burden of T1D, implying that the condition can be easily managed and that people with T1D simply have to “take care of themselves.” 

Negative impact

By presenting false and harmful narratives, the media help shape popular beliefs and create a hostile environment and culture where people with T1D are judged and stigmatized. 

The negative impact of this stigma can extend to many areas, including:

  • Personal relationships 
  • Social identity
  • Emotional well-being 
  • Behaviours related to T1D management

In fact, studies show that stigma can lead to:

  • A tendency to hide the condition. For example, a child might avoid measuring their blood sugar at school so that they don’t have to tell classmates about having T1D, or an adult might skip their lunchtime insulin so that they don’t have to disclose their condition to their colleagues. 
  • Poor glycemic control (e.g., higher HbA1c, more severe hypoglycemic episodes).
  • More long-term complications.
  • Greater psychological distress (e.g., more depressive symptoms and less social support).
  • Lower quality of life.

Diabetes-related stigma appears to significantly harm the well-being of people with T1D and should be considered part of the disease burden as it can erode one’s physical, emotional, and mental health.


A collective responsibility

Media representations of T1D can be misleading and lead to stigmatization and general misinformation. Proper education on health conditions is crucial to our society and our safety. For people with T1D, proper representation and reduced stigma may lead to better disease management. 

A large part of the population unknowingly receives health information through the media. Unfortunately, the purpose of this information is usually to tell a story rather than present accurate facts. Content and media creators have a responsibility to the public to avoid misinformation and fact distortion. The public also needs to be proactive and vocal about negative or false representations of aspects of public health in the media. We can send letters or emails and contact content creators or government officials to demand that accurate, scientifically verified medical information be used in the media.

Stigma is one of the under-researched aspects of T1D, so it’s essential that more research be conducted to highlight these realities and improve the situation. 

The BETTER Registry asks every person living with type 1 diabetes in Canada to share their reality via a questionnaire. The questionnaire covers many of the often-overlooked aspects of T1D, such as stigma and its impact on people with T1D. If you live with T1D in Canada and haven’t yet shared your story through the registry, please take some time (15–25 minutes) to complete the questionnaire!

References : 

  • Katz, Alexandra et al. “Media Portrayal of Type 1 Diabetes in North American Television and Film.” Canadian journal of diabetes, S1499-2671(22)00091-0. 27 Apr. 2022, doi:10.1016/j.jcjd.2022.04.007
  • Brazeau AS Nakhla M, Wright M, Panagiotopoulos C, Pacaud D, Henderson M, Rahme E, DaCosta D, Dasgupta K. Stigma and its association with glycemic control and hypoglycemia in adolescents and young adults with type 1 diabetes: Cross-sectional study. JMIR 2018; 20 (4): e151 
  • Browne, Jessica L et al. “’I’m not a druggie, I’m just a diabetic’: a qualitative study of stigma from the perspective of adults with type 1 diabetes.” BMJ openvol. 4,7  e005625. 23 Jul. 2014, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005625
  • Liu, N. F., et al. (2017). Stigma in People with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes. Clinical Diabetes, 35(1), 27–34
  • Chung, Jamie O P et al. “Media Portrayal of Chronic Illnesses.” Canadian journal of diabetes vol. 46,8 (2022): 775. doi:10.1016/j.jcjd.2022.07.005
  • Hill, S., Gingras, J., & Gucciardi, E. (2013). The Lived Experience of Canadian University Students with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 37, 237–242.
  • Hansen, U. M., Olesen, K., & Willaing, I. (2020). Diabetes stigma and its association with diabetes outcomes: a cross-sectional study of adults with type 1 diabetes. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 48, 855–861.

Written by:

  • Delphine Bouchard RN. BSc.
  • Sarah Haag RN. BSc.

Reviewed by:

  • Amélie Roy-Fleming Dt.P., EAD, M.Sc.
  • Alexandra Katz H. B. Sc.,
  • Anne-Sophie Brazeau RD, Ph. D.
  • Claude Laforest, Jacques Pelletier, Sonia Fontaine, Nathalie Kinnard, Laurence Secours, Michel Dostie, Marie-Christine Payette, patient-partners of the BETTER project

Linguistic revision by: Marie-Christine Payette