Very low calorie diet can reverse type 2 diabetes: Study

According to scientists people who have had obesity-related type 2 diabetes for years have been cured, at least temporarily, by keeping to an extreme, low-calorie, diet for two months. The researchers from Newcastle University, overturns previous assumptions about type 2 diabetes, which was thought to be a lifelong illness.

In the UK about two and a half million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, the large majority with type 2, and numbers are rising across much of the world.

The results of the Newcastle investigation, though the study was small, demonstrated that full recovery was possible, not through drugs but through a crash diet. The study was funded by Diabetes UK. The team recruited 11 people with diabetes. They had to slash their food intake to just 600 calories a day for two months. But three months later seven of the 11 were free of diabetes.

The volunteers were closely supervised by a medical team and matched with the same number of volunteers with diabetes who did not get the special diet. After just one week into the study, the pre-breakfast blood sugar levels of the study group had returned to normal. And MRI scans showed that the fat levels in the pancreas had returned to normal. The pancreas regained its ability to make insulin. After the eight-week diet the volunteers returned to normal eating but had advice on healthy foods and portion size. Ten of the group were retested and seven had stayed free of diabetes.

Roy Taylor, professor at Newcastle University, who led the study said, “To have people free of diabetes after years with the condition is remarkable – and all because of an eight-week diet. This is a radical change in understanding type 2 diabetes. It will change how we can explain it to people newly diagnosed with the condition. While it has long been believed that someone with type 2 diabetes will always have the disease, and that it will steadily get worse, we have shown that we can reverse the condition.”

The research, presented today at the American Diabetes Association conference, shows that an extremely low-calorie diet, consisting of diet drinks and non-starchy vegetables, prompts the body to remove the fat clogging the pancreas and preventing it from making insulin.

Taylor, the director of the Newcastle Magnetic Resonance Centre, had the idea for the study after it was shown that diabetes was reversed in people who had undergone stomach stapling or other forms of bariatric surgery because of obesity. “What was remarkable was that the diabetes went away over the course of one week. It was widely believed the operation itself had done something, [that] the hormones in the gut were thought to be the cause. That is almost universally believed.”

“We believe this shows that type 2 diabetes is all about energy balance in the body,” said Taylor. “If you are eating more than you burn, then the excess is stored in the liver and pancreas as fat, which can lead to type 2 diabetes in some people. What we need to examine further is why some people are more susceptible to developing diabetes than others.”

He warned that only a minority of people, perhaps 5% or 10%, would be able to stick to the harsh diet necessary to get rid of diabetes. But even that, he said, would dramatically improve the health of many people and save the NHS millions.

Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK warned that people should not try this without a doctor's approval and help. “We welcome the results of this research because it shows that type 2 diabetes can be reversed, on a par with successful surgery without the side effects. However, this diet is not an easy fix and Diabetes UK strongly recommends that such a drastic diet should only be undertaken under medical supervision. Despite [it] being a very small trial, we look forward to future results, particularly to see whether the reversal remains long term,” he said.

Dietitian Gaynor Bussell, said, “Patients in my clinics are told if you lose weight you won’t need tablets.” She also warned, “We’d never recommend 600 calories. Below 1,000 it becomes difficult to get enough nutrients, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids into the body.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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