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“Reversing” Type 2 Diabetes
Can It Be Done?

by David Spero, RN

Starvation isn’t the only approach that may reverse Type 2 diabetes. In his book The Blood Sugar Solution, Mark Hyman, MD, writes that you don’t need an extreme diet, you don’t necessarily need weight loss, and you don’t need surgery. He says that just cutting out or drastically reducing starches and sugars, and exercising more, will reverse Type 2 diabetes in about 80% of people.

In thousands of anecdotal reports, people like Dennis and Terri say they have reduced or eliminated their diabetes medicines, brought their glucose and cholesterol numbers into the normal range, and rid themselves of symptoms and complications such as fatigue, neuropathy, eye damage, and protein in their urine. Others have reported less dramatic but still significant improvements.

At least four approaches, other than extreme caloric restriction, are claimed to reverse Type 2 diabetes in many people. Most involve dietary changes (often along with exercise), and they include low-carbohydrate diets, vegan diets, traditional diets for native peoples, and bariatric surgery. Let’s look at the evidence for each of these approaches.

Low-carb diets
In his book Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The complete guide to achieving normal blood sugars, (first published in 1997 and updated periodically since then), Richard Bernstein, MD, recounts how he stabilized his Type 1 diabetes and reversed most of its complications with a low-carbohydrate diet.

Bernstein discovered through self-monitoring that if he ate only very small amounts of slowly digested carbohydrates (those with a very low glycemic index), he could cover them with insulin and keep his blood glucose in the normal range. He found that his patients with Type 2 diabetes also had big spikes in after-meal blood glucose when they ate carbohydrate. They saw great improvement when they adopted his low-carb diet, even when insulin injections weren’t in the picture.

Since then, scores of books, articles, and Web sites have appeared that promote low-carb diets for diabetes. A group of people in the United Kingdom with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes created the Web site Low Carb Diabetic to report how they normalized their blood glucose levels. They write, “While some medications can help to reduce blood glucose, a reduction of the foods in the diet which raise levels in the first place can be sufficient to normalize them. Medication can therefore often be reduced and in some cases (Type 2 diabetics only) eliminated altogether.”

One Duke University study followed 82 obese people with Type 2 diabetes who were assigned to either a very-low-carb or a low-calorie diet. After six months, the low-carb group had a lower average HbA1c level and had lost more weight than the low-calorie group, and 95% were able to reduce or totally eliminate their diabetes medicines. Eric Westman, MD, director of Duke’s Lifestyle Medicine Program and lead author of the study, said, “If you cut out the carbohydrates, your blood sugar goes down, and you lose weight, which lowers your blood sugar even further. It’s a one-two punch.”

There are a wide variety of low-carb diets and books available, including Conquer Diabetes and Prediabetes by Steve Parker, MD; The Blood Sugar Solution by Mark Hyman, MD; and The 30-Day Diabetes Cure by Stefan Ripich, ND. You can also read dozens of diabetes blogs and Web sites that focus on low-carb diets (see “Resources”).

Vegetarian and vegan diets
Vegetarian diets and vegan diets (no meat, eggs, or dairy) are known to help prevent diabetes. One two-year study of 25,000 people in the United States and Canada found that vegans had only one-fourth the risk of developing diabetes as nonvegetarians.

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