An open letter to CrossFit

By Kurt Wood
1st July 2015
In Depth

On June 29, CrossFit tweeted this:

crossfit tweet

We see this sort of “awareness raising” a lot for type 2 diabetes. It does more harm than good.

This is an open letter to CrossFit explaining why the tweet was unethical, and why it undermines real attempts to raise diabetes awareness.


Dear CrossFit,

Your ironic new slogan for Coca-Cola – “open diabetes” – isn’t helping anyone. It undermines the complex causes of diabetes and pushes diabetes awareness back about five steps. Here’s why:

For one thing, it fails to grasp the nuance between the different kinds of diabetes. You were talking about type 2 diabetes, which can, in some cases, be caused by poor diet and a lack of exercise. Then there’s type 1. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The immune system, wrongly, identifies insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas as foreign invaders and destroys them. It’s usually diagnosed in childhood – though not always – and it certainly isn’t caused by bad diet. There’s not a lot you can do about it.

The two types of diabetes don’t really have that much in common, so it’s kind of inaccurate – or at least, unhelpfully vague – to talk about coke giving you “diabetes.” In fact, sugary drinks can be a lifesaver for people with type 1 when blood glucose levels run low.

All of which sounds very pedantic. We know. But we’re not just being picky: the pervasive misconceptions surrounding diabetes have a very real and detrimental impact. When everyone hears “type 1 diabetes” and imagines a group of people who gave themselves a disease through drinking too much coke, it’s kind of hard to drum up public support. Without public support, big type 1 charities like the JDRF can’t get as many donations – donations that could lead to important research.

Later, you tweeted “stop assuming we don’t grasp the difference” between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. We wouldn’t make that assumption. But if you don’t distinguish what type you’re talking about, your level of understanding is irrelevant. Your audience might not know the difference. Your audience might see “diabetes” in the future – referring to type 1 – and be less likely to make a donation to a charity or help raise awareness, because they don’t see “diabetes” as a worthy cause. You have a responsibility not to misinform.

So that’s the first issue with your tweet: it wrongly conflates the two (very different) types of diabetes. But even if you had specified that you meant type 2, you’d still be wrong. Because type 2 diabetes is driven largely by metabolic problems like insulin resistance. And metabolism is a lot more complex than drinking the odd can of coke. As many as one in five people who get type 2 will be of a healthy weight, and those who are overweight are often so because of complicated metabolic issues. Again, it’s very difficult to get the intricacies of the problem taken seriously when people associate type 2 diabetes exclusively with a lack of self-control, and these are exactly the kinds of associations you’re encouraging.

We’re not arguing with the causative link between sugar consumption and type 2 diabetes, and we appreciate your efforts to raise awareness. But this isn’t the right way to do it. It’s reductive, and it spreads damaging perceptions of a poorly-understood disease.

Frankly, we’re getting tired of this style of diabetes awareness, whereby drinking a brand of sugary drink is simplistically compared to giving yourself a complex disease. You’re not the first to do it, and you won’t be the last. But type 2 diabetes is a rapidly growing health concern, and its roots are deep and far from simple. Please don’t contribute to the ignorance.

What do you think?