Keto Diet Doesn’t Cure Diabetes

Note: this is both a Science Made Simple article and an editorial, where I express my own opinion.

A ketogenic diet and the weight loss that can accompany it is well documented to be both safe and effective as medical nutrition therapy in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. While it can enable individuals to put symptoms of the disease into remission, it is not a ‘cure’.

An article widely circulated on social media earlier this week announced “What If They Cured Diabetes and No One Noticed?”[1] and said;

“So you’d think that if someone figured out a way to reverse this horrible disease, there would be big bold headlines in 72-point type. You’d think the medical community, politicians and popular press would be shouting it from the rooftops.

Guess what? Someone did. Yet it appears no one noticed.

The cure was simple — so simple, in fact, that it involved no medication, no expensive surgery and no weird alternative supplements or treatments.

What was this miracle intervention? Diet. Specifically, the ketogenic diet.”

Of course, the author is entitled to hold this opinion and to express it, however in my opinion, a ketogenic diet does not “reverse diabetes” — it does not “cure” it.  Furthermore, I believe the distinction between “reversing diabetes” and “reversing the symptoms of diabetes” is very important, and more than a matter of semantics.

In an article I posted last year titled The Difference Between Reversal and Remission of Type 2 Diabetes, I wrote that;

“Reversal” of a disease implies that whatever was causing it is now gone and is synonymous with using the term “cured”.  In the case of someone with Type 2 Diabetes, reversal would mean that the person can now eat a standard diet and still maintain normal blood sugar levels. But does that actually occur? Or are blood sugar levels normal only while eating a diet that is appropriate for someone who is Diabetic, such as a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, or while taking medications such as Metformin?

If blood sugar is only normal while eating a therapeutic diet or taking medication then this is not reversal of the disease process, but remission of symptoms.”

Addendum (July 18 2019): Type 2 diabetes is the result of beta cell failure resulting from over-taxing them with a highly refined, carb-laden diet over extended periods of time (you can read more about that here). For something to ‘cure’ type 2 diabetes, there would need to evidence of a restoration of beta-cell function. If someone was indeed ‘cured’ they would have a normal glucose and insulin response on a 3 hour glucose-insulin test (OGTT will added insulin assay at 0 hr, 1 hr and 2 hrs.).  Anything short of that is ‘remission’.

I feel that claiming that a keto diet ‘cures diabetes’ or ‘reverses the disease’ does the public a disservice:

  • Firstly, it implies that there is simple, free ‘cure’ that will work for everybody.  As I outline below; some people are able to achieve partial or complete remission of their symptoms following a keto diet, and others are not.
  • Secondly, it implies that there is a simple, free ‘cure’ available, but that it is being ‘withheld’ for some reason — either because doctors don’t know about or are afraid what colleagues might think, or because the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries have ‘big bucks to lose’ by people limiting their intake of bread, pasta and insulin.

There is no question that physicians (and all clinicians) need to be selective about recommending a keto diet for their patients / clients and to be able to document from the literature that it is safe, effective and best clinical practice for the condition for which it is recommended, and appropriate for the individual.

While falling markets for specific types of food products and drugs certainly have an impact on the economics of both the agricultural industry and pharmaceutic industry, it comes across like a ‘conspiracy theory’ to imply there is a ‘cure’ available out there, but that the public is being ‘denied’ access to it by “big food” and “big pharma”.

  • Finally, it implies that if people are unable to ‘reverse their diabetes’ and get ‘cured’ following a keto diet, that it is their fault; they mustn’t have done it properly.  Even if we substitute the terms and say instead “put their diabetes into remission” or “reverse the symptoms of diabetes”, it is unreasonable and unfair to assume that everyone will be successful in doing so, and if they aren’t, the responsibility falls on them.

Virta Health Data

The on-going study from the Virta Health had over 200 adults ranging in age from 46-62 years of age in the intervention group following a ketogenic diet at the end of two years. At one year, participants in the intervention group lowered their glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) to 6.3% (from 7.7% at the beginning of the study) —  with 60% of them putting their type 2 diabetes into remission based on HbA1C levels >=6.5% (American Diabetes Association and Diabetes Canada guidelines).  HbA1C rose slightly to 6.7% at two years. The keto group did considerably better than the ‘usual care group’ whose average HbA1C actually rose to 7.6% at one-year (from 7.5% at the beginning of the study), and rose again to 7.9% at two years [3]. 

Fasting blood glucose of the intervention group following a keto diet increased slightly from  127 mg/dl (7.0 mmol/L) at one year to 134 mg/dl (7.4 mmol/l) at two years, which was considerably better than the usual care group, whose fasting blood glucose was 160 mg/dl (8.9 mmol/L) at one-year and 172 mg/dl (9.5 mmol/L) at two years [3].

Data so far from this study demonstrates that a well-designed keto diet can be very effective in reversing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes, and that it is more effective than what was ‘standard care’ (prior to the new ADA guidelines), but it is not a ‘cure’.

Dr. Stephen Phinney and the research team at Virta Health have written on the Virta Health website [3];

“A well-formulated ketogenic diet can not only prevent and slow down progression of type-2 diabetes, it can actually resolve all the signs and symptoms in many patients, in effect reversing the disease as long as the carbohydrate restriction is maintained.” [2]

That is, the Virta researchers say that a well-designed keto diet can resolve the signs and symptoms of the disease in many people, which “in effect” (i.e. ‘is like’) reversing the disease —  as long as the carbohydrate restriction is maintained. They don’t promote the diet as a ‘cure’, but as an effective treatment.

There is no question that Virta’s results are impressive — so much so that their studies have been included in the reference list of the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) new Consensus Report of April 18, 2019, where the ADA included adopted the use of both a low carb and very low carb (ketogenic) diet (20-50 g of carbs per day) as one of the management methods for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in adults. You can read more about that here.

In fact, the ADA said in that report that;

Reducing overall carbohydrate intake for individuals with diabetes has demonstrated the most evidence for improving glycemia*’

* blood sugar

A keto diet is not a ‘cure’ for diabetes. At this present time, there is no cure for diabetes. There are, however three documented ways to put type 2 diabetes into remission;

  1. a low calorie energy deficit diet [4,5,6]
  2. bariatric surgery (especially use of the roux en Y procedure) [7,8]
  3. a ketogenic diet [3]

Final Thoughts…

I believe that based on what has been published to date, it is fair to say that a well-designed ketogenic diet can;

  • prevent progression to type 2 diabetes, when adopted early in pre-diabetes
  • slow down progression of type 2 diabetes
  • resolve the signs and symptoms of the type 2 diabetes
  • serve in effect like reversing the disease, provided carbohydrate restriction is maintained

…but to claim that a keto diet ‘cures’ type 2 diabetes is simply incorrect.

A ketogenic diet is a safe and effective option for those wanting to put the symptoms of type 2 diabetes into remission.

More Info?

If you would like more information about adopting a low carb or ketogenic diet in an effort to put the symptoms of type 2 diabetes into remission or for weight loss, I’d be glad to help.

You can learn more about my services under the Services tab or in the Shop.

If you have questions, please feel free to send me a note using the Contact Me form above and I will reply as soon as I can.

To your good health!

Joy

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Copyright ©2019 The Low Carb Healthy Fat Dietitian (a division of BetterByDesign Nutrition Ltd.)

LEGAL NOTICE: The contents of this blog, including text, images and cited statistics as well as all other material contained here (the “content”) are for information purposes only.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, medical diagnosis and/or treatment and is not suitable for self-administration without the knowledge of your physician and regular monitoring by your physician. Do not disregard medical advice and always consult your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or before implementing anything  you have read or heard in our content.

References

  1. Steel, P, “What If They Cured Diabetes and No One Noticed? – if the ketogenic diet can reverse diabetes, why isn’t your doctor recommending it?”, The Startup, July 13 2019, https://medium.com/swlh/what-if-they-cured-diabetes-and-no-one-noticed-keto-diet-ketogenic-virta-study-d49c195bf8f5
  2. Phinney S and the Virta Team, Can a ketogenic diet reverse type 2 diabetes? https://blog.virtahealth.com/ketogenic-diet-reverse-type-2-diabetes/
  3. Athinarayanan SJ, Adams RN, Hallberg SJ et al, Long-Term Effects of a Novel Continuous Remote Care Intervention Including Nutritional Ketosis for the Management of Type 2 Diabetes: A 2-year Non-randomized Clinical Trial.  preprint first posted online Nov. 28, 2018;doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/476275.
  4. Lim EL, Hollingsworth KG, Aribisala BS, Chen MJ, Mathers JC, Taylor R. Reversal of type 2 diabetes: normalisation of beta cell function in association with decreased pancreas and liver triacylglycerol. Diabetologia2011;54:2506-14. doi:10.1007/s00125-011-2204-7 pmid:21656330
  5. Steven S, Hollingsworth KG, Al-Mrabeh A, et al. Very low-calorie diet and 6 months of weight stability in type 2 diabetes: pathophysiological changes in responders and nonresponders. Diabetes Care2016;39:808-15. doi:10.2337/dc15-1942 pmid:27002059
  6. Lean ME, Leslie WS, Barnes AC, et al. Primary care-led weight management for remission of type 2 diabetes (DiRECT): an open-label, cluster-randomised trial. Lancet2018;391:541-51.
  7. Cummings DE, Rubino F (2018) Metabolic surgery for the treatment of type 2 diabetes in obese individuals. Diabetologia 61(2):257–264.
  8. Madsen, L.R., Baggesen, L.M., Richelsen, B. et al. Effect of Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery on diabetes remission and complications in individuals with type 2 diabetes: a Danish population-based matched cohort study, Diabetologia (2019) 62: 611. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-019-4816-2

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