How I reversed my type 2 diabetes – and you can too
Until recently, a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes was considered a one-way street. It meant a lifetime of medication and declining health. But a growing body of evidence indicates that many people, especially in the early stages of the disease, can put their Type 2 diabetes into remission simply by losing weight.
Dr David Unwin, a GP from Southport, has been putting his patients on low-carb diets to help reverse their diabetes for almost a decade. In a new study published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, 186 of Dr Unwin’s patients, most of whom had had diabetes for at least six years, lost an average of 10kg (1st 8lb) in 33 months.
As a result, nearly all - 97 per cent – saw improved control of their blood sugar levels and two, both of whom had struggled with type 2 diabetes for 15 years, were able to reverse the condition and come off all their medication. He says that the earlier patients made changes, the better. “In fact, 77 per cent of those opting to try the low-carbohydrate-based programme in the first year following diagnosis achieved remission.”
Unlike Type 1 Diabetes, Type 2 is acquired later in life and leaves you vulnerable to a host of health conditions, including heart attacks, stroke and most common cancers.
Unwin’s co-author, Prof Roy Taylor, is a pioneer in treating diabetes via diet.
Taylor is a professor of medicine and metabolism at Newcastle University, and was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list for his work on diabetes. He says, “Diabetes is a terrible condition. It can cause premature heart disease and premature death, as well as affecting nerves – causing loss of feeling – and the eyes, leading to sight loss, and it is a leading cause of limb amputations.
There are 180 diabetes-related amputations a week in the UK. Once type 2 diabetes becomes firmly established it becomes very difficult to manage these complications. People often feel fine in the early stages – a bit tired maybe – and think it’s ‘not as bad as doctors say’. By the time they realise they are not fine, it’s too late.”
This might sound grim, however, research shows it’s perfectly possible to reverse Type 2 diabetes through diet, at least in the early stages. In 2018, Prof Taylor published a pioneering study showing that a 12-week, 800-calorie a day meal replacement diet could put almost half of participants – 44 per cent – into remission after twelve months. The amount of weight loss was key to success. Of the patients who lost more than 10 kg, 64 per cent were still in remission at two years.
The programme has since been rolled out within the NHS. So why does weight loss work? Prof Taylor explains that people develop diabetes when they carry too much fat for their personal genetic make-up. This can vary considerably. “People have ‘safe’ fat stores under the skin which can be quite enormous,” he says. “In fact, three-quarters of very big people won’t develop type 2 diabetes.”
But, he says, if people cannot handle excess fat because of their personal genetics, their bodies will store it in organs, such as the liver and the pancreas, which secretes insulin. This prevents them from working properly. However, weight loss strips that fat from organs, allowing insulin-producing cells to start functioning again. “A 15kg weight loss (2 stones 5 lbs) is suitable for most people to put their diabetes into remission,” says Prof Taylor. “If they start with a weight that isn’t very high, they may need to lose less.”
Prof Taylor says that while any calorie-cutting plan could work, a low-carb diet may be useful because “in the UK we get 45 per cent of calories from carbs compared to closer to 40 per cent in much of Europe.”
Remission of type 2 diabetes is most likely to happen shortly after diagnosis as, says Prof Taylor, the longer the disease continues the more likely it is that the insulin-secreting cells become permanently damaged.
But even if a 10 to 15 kg weight loss doesn’t put diabetes into remission, there are still “enormous gains in health” says Prof Taylor. For example, the 10-year risk of heart attack or stroke can fall from 20 per cent to 14 per cent. And even if people regain the weight eventually, “they have slowed the rate of progression of the disease considerably”.
And if we don’t want to develop diabetes in the first place? Prof Taylor’s advice is simple but uncompromising. “Don’t gain weight.”
'I want everyone to know it is possible to turn Diabetes around'
Vicky Saynor, 47, Hertfordshire, is married to Chris and they have four children between them, aged between 11 and 17. Vicky and Chris run a holiday lettings business, Bethnal & Bec Luxury Stays.
“In 2021, during lockdown, I started to feel unwell. I had brain fog, depression and no energy. But most noticeably, I’d gone from being an energetic and healthy size ten at 68 kilos (10 stone 9 lbs), to weighing 84.2 kilos or more than 13 stones. At 5’8” I was now a dress size 16 to 18 and my waist was an unhealthy 44 inches. I felt very miserable.
I’d had successful breast cancer treatment in 2019, which had put me into menopause. I was initially told that my weight loss had been caused by chemo and that I didn't need blood tests. But I suspected something was wrong with my blood sugars because I felt sick when I was hungry and was starving at night. When I looked through my old blood tests from my hospital treatment, I saw my blood sugar levels had been rising for a while.
Frustrated, I paid to see a private GP. She arranged blood tests that showed my HbA1c level – a measure of the sugariness of my blood - had shot up to 48 (ideally, it should be no more than 42), which meant I now had type 2 diabetes. Horrified, I started following Michael Mosley’s Eight Week Blood Sugar Diet. This is a Mediterranean-style, 800 calorie a day diet. I lost a stone in about two months, my weight dropping to 78 kilos (12 stone 2 lbs).
I ate eggs for breakfast and lots of meat, vegetables and salads. I ate just 100g a day of unprocessed carbs such as brown rice and didn’t drink any alcohol. It was hard, but the weight loss was motivating and soon made it easier to exercise. I’d walk our dog and weight train three times a week.
By September last year, my bloods were in the healthy range. I now weigh 71 kilos or just over 11 stones, I’m on the maintenance phase of Mosley’s Keto 800 diet and I’d like to lose another 2 kilos or 4 lbs. I have a very different relationship with food these days. I have a burger without the bun, don’t take sugar in my coffee and sweet things don’t taste as good as they used to. I’m full of energy, I don’t take any medication and I’m proud of my body. People underestimate diabetes. It’s a silent killer. But I want everyone to know, it is possible to turn it around.”
'I’d lost one leg. I couldn’t afford to lose another'
Andrew Dunning, 54, is founder and design director of interior design consultancy London Contemporary. He lives in North London and is married to Andrew Hyett.
“Seven years ago, my business was taking off, I was juggling projects and under a huge amount of stress. It meant that I took my eye off the ball, health-wise, and was eating a lot of junk food. I felt very tired, but I put that down to being busy. Out of curiosity, my husband had bought some sticks that test blood sugar in your urine. He tried them first and said, “I’m fine”. I said, “Let me have a go” and was shocked to see the reading showed I had sugar in my urine. I went to see my GP who, after a blood test, diagnosed me with type 2 diabetes and suggested I start on metformin. That was a real wake-up call.
I am 5’10” and at the time weighed 88 kilos or 13 stone and 12 lbs. It was frightening to read about side effects such as loss of sight and amputations. The thing is, I’d had to have a leg amputated when I was only 19 after developing bone cancer in my left knee. I certainly couldn’t afford to lose another! And as an interior designer, I need my eyesight.
I went to NHS healthy eating classes, and joined some diabetes forums online. I saw that some people had switched to a low carb diet with great benefits, sometimes even putting their type 2 diabetes into remission, coming off all their medication and feeling great again.
Inspired, I cut out junk food and learned how to eat and cook low carb. I swapped cereal and toast for bacon and eggs. I’d make a shepherd’s pie with cauliflower mash instead of potatoes. I even learned how to bake low-carb cakes. When eating out, I’d look at the menu online and plan what I’d eat. My husband and I love to go out for pizza, so I’d eat the topping and not the base. I also swim every weekday morning. I lost 14 kilos, or just over two stones in nine months, reaching 74 kilos (11 stone 9 lbs), and my blood sugar levels came right down, meaning I was no longer diabetic.
Sometimes, such as at Christmas, I fall off the wagon and eat carbs. But when I do, my sugars shoot up and I start feeling rubbish again, which motivates me to eat properly. I wish more people knew how to manage their type 2 diabetes. Not taking pills makes me feel on top of the world.”