Health professionals usually call Type 2 diabetes a chronic, progressive illness. “Chronic” means you’ll always have it. “Progressive” means you will almost certainly get worse. The best you can hope for is to slow its progression through your diet, exercise, and oral medicine or insulin.
The diagnosis of a chronic, progressive condition can feel like having a curse put on you. If you have to get worse, if you can’t avoid complications and premature death, then why struggle with your diet and managing your diabetes? In the words of Jenny Ruhl, a blogger with LADA (latent autoimmune diabetes of adults, sometimes called “Type 1.5” diabetes), “If there is nothing you can do, it is rational behavior to shift your energy elsewhere and enjoy life — including the foods you love — while you can.”
Although experts have called both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes “chronic” and “progressive” for decades, some people with diabetes disagree. A Diabetes Self-Management Blog reader named Dennis wrote, “Last November I weighed 288 [pounds] with an [HbA1c level] of 7.1%. Diabetic complications had set in. Today, with a very low-carbohydrate diet, my [HbA1c level] is 5.6%. I’ve lost 35 pounds, my sugars are under control, and all my symptoms are gone!” (The HbA1c test gives an indication of average blood glucose level over the past 2–3 months. The American Diabetes Association advises most people with diabetes to aim for an HbA1c level below 7% to prevent complications.)
On the same note, a reader named Bob wrote, “By limiting carbs, my [HbA1c level] dropped from an 8.6% to a most recent reading of 4.9%.” And Terri posted, “I am a diabetic who eats a low-carb vegan diet. I am far healthier now at 53 than ever before and maintain perfect glucose control.”
Reports like these are called “anecdotal evidence” and are usually discounted by scientists. But even some doctors who used to consider diabetes a death sentence are now saying that Type 2 diabetes can be reversed, even cured (more on what “cured” means later).
In a talk published by online resource Medscape in December 2003, diabetes expert Roy Taylor, MD, professor of medicine at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, stated that even good blood glucose control doesn’t slow the progression of complications much. Dr. Taylor said that the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS, a landmark 20-year study published in 1998) showed that “intensive therapy made a difference” in eye damage, “but not a staggering difference, [and]…abnormal nerve function continues to progress.” Intensive blood glucose control, furthermore, “does not seem to be able to stop kidney damage.”
The UKPDS findings led Dr. Taylor and many others to conclude that ultimately, nothing can be done to stop the damage caused by Type 2 diabetes, so people who have it essentially got the message, “Do the best you can; we’ll help you with drugs, but you’ll go downhill anyway.”
But times change. On June 24, 2011, Dr. Taylor’s research group released a paper called “Reversal of Type 2 Diabetes: Normalization of beta cell function in association with decreased pancreas and liver triacylglycerol.” The paper details how 11 study subjects who were put on a 600-calorie diet for eight weeks regained normal insulin function, had normal lab results, and stopped taking all diabetes medicines, some after only one week. Quoted in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph, Taylor said, “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.”