A good diet and exercise are essential to managing type 2 diabetes. But can committing to a healthy diet really reverse the condition? Experts say it’s possible for some.
A well-balanced, healthy diet is often touted as the best way to prevent, manage, and treat a whole host of conditions, from cancer to heart disease. And now, research indicates that a healthy diet may be enough to reverse type 2 diabetes, especially when combined with a regular exercise program. In fact, one small study conducted in the United Kingdom found that people with type 2 diabetes were able to reverse the condition by following a calorie-restricted diet. Although a healthy dietis not enough to reverse diabetes in everyone, it is the first step for anyone managing the condition.
“Nutrition is the most important first-line treatment for diabetes and pre-diabetes,” explains Betul Hatipoglu, MD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “Restricting calories will improve blood sugar levels dramatically, most likely by affecting the liver’s sugar production.”
Creating the Right “Diabetes Diet”
It’s important to understand that, in this context, the word “diet” means the food that you eat every day — not a short-term fix to lose weightor temporarily treat diabetes. “The diet you choose should be something you can follow the rest of your life,” says Susan Spratt, MD, an endocrinologist at Duke Medicine in Durham, N.C. “That’s why we don’t recommend fad diets, like those that eliminate multiple food groups from your diet, because those diets are unsustainable.”
Your diabetes diet, which is best when personalized for your needs, shouldn’t just focus on cutting calories, but also make the most of the calories you eat. “A healthy diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy oils,” says Angela Ginn, RD, a certified diabetes educator, program coordinator at the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology at Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It encourages healthy food preparation, such as baking, broiling, roasting, and grilling meats, as well as lowering your salt intake.”
Another tenet is limiting saturated fats, says Hatipoglu, who recommends that less than 7 percent of daily calories come from saturated fats. It’s also important to avoid trans fats and to limit cholesterol intake to no more than about 200 milligrams daily.
Hatipoglu recommends sticking to a generally low-carbohydrate diet and choosing lean proteins, which help to keep you full and energized without too much added fat. Good protein choices include lean fish and poultry without skin. If you opt for beef or pork, choose the leanest cuts, avoid frying your food, and trim off any fat. Dairy products can also be part of a healthy diabetes diet, but stick to non-fat or low-fat options for milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy.
Here are general recommendations for a healthy diet to help manage diabetes:
- Eat three meals each day, with healthy snacks in between as needed to regulate blood sugar.
- Stick to a regular meal schedule, eating at the same time each day.
- Eat appropriate portion sizes.
- Eat more vegetables.
- Sip water or low-calorie beverages throughout the day.
Factors to Reverse Diabetes
In addition to your diet, exercise is an essential part of keeping diabetes under control, and maintaining a healthy weight is a key goal. “Reversing type 2 diabetes is possible with diet and exercise, especially if it is newly diagnosed, but it’s more likely if weight loss can be achieved and, of course, maintained,” says Hatipoglu.
Still, even if you maintain a healthy weight and diet, diabetes reversal is not guaranteed. “We see ‘skinny’ type 2 diabetics as well, so it is not always possible to reverse diabetes,” says Hatipoglu.
If you are able to reverse diabetes, the battle is still far from over. “Diabetes is a chronic condition,” explains Hatipoglu. “Some of our patients will do very well with diet and exercise, but another stress in their life — such as another illness, a medication, or a psychological stress — might push them back to the diabetic state. So, it is important to work with a health care provider and monitor blood sugars to catch problems early.”
Also, Spratt says to remember that diabetes is a progressive condition. Even though your diabetes may be under control now, you might eventually need medications as part of your diabetes treatment. Eating a healthy diet, however, can help stave off diabetes complications and keep other chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, in check. There is simply no downside to eating a healthy diabetes diet.