Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The cure for diabetes

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I was recently informed that there is a cure for type 2 diabetes. Apparently researchers in Newcastle have found a way to reverse type 2 diabetes. According to their website:

Our work has shown that type 2 diabetes is not inevitably progressive and life-long. We have demonstrated that in people who have had type 2 diabetes for 4 years or less, major weight loss returns insulin secretion to normal.

Obviously, we dietitians have been recommending weight loss, diet, and lifestyle changes for many years. However, these changes rarely result in a complete reversal of the condition. The best case scenario is usually that the patient is able to manage their diabetes without the need for medications. More often though, it means that the progress of type 2 diabetes is slowed and less medication is needed to keep blood sugars reasonably stable. Despite this research having been conducted back in 2008 this was the first that I had heard of it.

For those interested, the complete study Reversal of type 2 diabetes: normalisation of beta cell function in association with decreased pancreas and liver triacylglycerol is available here. To summarize, they looked at eleven people whom had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes within the previous four years. Yes, that’s correct, eleven people. That’s a pretty small sample size. That means that no matter how astounding the results, it’s impossible to say if they will be applicable to the majority of people with type 2 diabetes.

The results of the study were quite good. All of the participants saw dramatic improvements in both fasting blood sugar and plasma insulin levels after only one week. In fact, after only one week of the eight week program, these levels were indistinguishable from a non-diabetic control group. Because normalization of beta cell function and insulin levels were seen in the participants, they were deemed “cured” of type 2 diabetes upon completion of the study.

What exactly did the researchers do to “cure” these people? They placed them on strict 600 kcal a day diets. Now, I don’t know about you, but that number shocked me. 600 kcal a day is extremely low. Most medically supervised low-calorie liquid diets for obese patients still have them consuming 800 kcal a day. Most weight management programs recommend patients consume at least 1, 200 kcal a day. For most people, 600 kcal is one meal (for many people, it’s less than one meal). In this study, participants consumed 510 kcal worth of Optifast shakes per day and were encouraged to supplement with non-starchy vegetables and drink at least two litres of water (and other calorie-free beverages) each day.

Because there was no follow-up with participants upon completion of the eight week study, there is no way to know for certain if they were actually cured of their diabetes or if it returned after they completed the program. Even supposing the diet is a cure for type 2 diabetes I can’t help but wonder how many people would be able to adhere to 600 kcal a day for eight weeks. As with any medicine, it doesn’t do any good if patients won’t take it. I suspect that the majority of people would forego the cure of such a strict diet.

All issues with this being touted as a “cure” for type 2 diabetes aside, I would like to see further research in this area. Larger, longer studies would be interesting. I’d also like to see a variety of levels of caloric restriction used as well as different sources of nutrition (not just shakes).