Type 2 diabetes remission might be possible on a temporary basis if people with the health condition follow a low carbohydrate diet, researchers suggest. In a review published in the BMJ (opens in new tab), researchers looked at data from 23 small trials and discovered that Type 2 diabetes patients who adhered to a low-carb diet for six months were more likely to reverse their diabetes than those who followed other eating plans.
Diabetes is a very serious health condition that affects over 34 million (opens in new tab) Americans, with 90-95% having Type 2 diabetes, where the body is unable to metabolize glucose. To manage their condition, Type 2 diabetes patients take regular blood sugar readings, often using one of the best glucose meters (opens in new tab). But this new research shows that while those with Type 2 diabetes who ate a low-carb diet for six months increased their rate of remission by 32%, analysis of the 1,327 participants revealed that the benefits largely disappeared after 12 months.
Senior researcher Grant Brinkworth suggests that more investigation is needed to understand why these promising results fade over time, but indicates it’s likely due to such diet changes being difficult to sustain. Still, according to Brinkworth, ‘People with Type 2 diabetes might be able to kick-start some weight loss and better blood-sugar control with a low-carb diet.’
Low carb diets and Type 2 diabetes remission
In the research conducted by a team at Texas A&M University, 23 trials made up of 1,327 participants with Type 2 diabetes were analyzed to see whether low-carb diets work better than other eating plans at putting diabetes into remission. Most of the participants in the trial were overweight or obese and aged between 47-67.
The trials featured a low-carb diet and a very low-carb diet, plus a low-fat control diet. Those on the low-carb diet restricted their carbohydrate intake to 25% of their 2,000 calories, while those on the very low-carb diet consumed no more than 10%. At the six-month review, those participants who had followed either low-carb eating plan were 32% more likely to go into remission (defined as a fasting glucose level of less than 7 mmol/L), compared to participants on the low-fat control diet.
The findings support an earlier study (opens in new tab) where participants who followed a low-carb Mediterranean diet (opens in new tab)had much higher remission rates than those who followed a low-fat diet. It’s not yet clear why low-carb diets are effective in putting Type 2 diabetes into remission, but it could be because those adhering to low-carb diets are encouraged to eat quality carbs such as fruits and vegetables, while limiting refined sugars.
However, the low-carb diets were only better than the control diet in putting Type 2 diabetes into remission when participants continued taking medication to lower their blood glucose. The same effect was not found in those participants who stopped taking their medication. In addition, when participants were followed up again 12 months after starting their diet, researchers found that the benefits had largely disappeared.
Why is this a short-term solution for Type 2 diabetes?
While it’s clear from the analysis of the trials that following a strict low-carb diet can put Type 2 diabetes into remission, more research is needed to understand why the effects don’t last. Julie Stefanski (opens in new tab), Registered Dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that despite the benefits low-carb diets offer for blood-sugar control, they can be difficult to stick to. ‘The fact is, carb-rich foods are pleasurable, hard to avoid and offer emotional connections to our past.’
The greater levels of remission shown in the low-carb groups within the study are likely due to these diets being lower in calories, with some participants eating as few as 800 calories per day.
Those following diets that were lower in fat and high in carbohydrates, and who also restricted their calories to 800 per day, also achieved similar rates of remission, making it highly likely that calorie restriction was the main cause behind remission.
Diets with severe calorie deprivation are not healthy or sustainable in the long run for most of us. Instead, a more achievable approach is to practice a healthy lifestyle that incorporates getting plenty of exercise and eating well. Reducing stress (opens in new tab) has also been shown to help with controlling blood sugar levels. Meditation can be a great way of helping reduce levels of stress and anxiety, and many of the best meditation apps (opens in new tab) have short sessions that are great for beginners or busy people.
When it comes to food, the American Diabetes Association suggests that people with Type 2 diabetes aim to get half their calories from carbohydrates, the body’s preferred source of fuel. In terms of activity, the CDC generally recommends (opens in new tab) 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, but this will depend on your level of health and your blood sugar reading.
If you don't yet have coverage, we'd recommend looking at our guide to the best health insurance companies (opens in new tab) and the best Medicare Part D plans (opens in new tab) to help manage the cost of diabetes care.