One in eight adults have diabetes (mostly type 2). And among those 65 or older, a quarter have diabetes (and half have prediabetes). We now know that, at least in some people, both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes can be reversed.

Reversing Type 2 diabetes

“This is a new way of thinking,” Roy Taylor, professor of medicine and metabolism at Newcastle University in England, told MDedge, a news source for physicians, in 2018. Taylor is one of the principal investigators of the Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial (DiRECT).

“Until now, we’ve regarded type 2 diabetes as inevitably downhill—it’s only going to get worse.”

But the DiRECT study turned that idea upside down.

What the DiRECT trial tested

The trial randomly assigned 49 doctors’ practices in the United Kingdom to treat overweight or obese patients who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes within the previous six years either with usual care (the control group) or with a very-low-calorie diet (the intervention group).1

“To make the intervention as simple as possible, we based it upon a liquid formula diet—so a packet for lunch, a packet for dinner, a packet for breakfast,” said Taylor. “That was the easiest way.”

For 12 to 20 weeks, the intervention group got only about 850 calories a day—600 from the packets and another 250 from salads and other veggie dishes.

“In addition to the liquid diet, we advised taking non-starchy vegetables [like] tomato, lettuce, cucumber, et cetera,” Taylor explained.

Then the people in the intervention group slowly added back foods for two to eight weeks. After that, they met with a dietitian or nurse monthly to help them maintain their weight loss for two years.

“We had a formal rescue plan,” said Taylor. “If someone’s weight went up by more than four kilograms—about 10 pounds—then we would intervene and provide the liquid diet again.”

All diabetes medicines were stopped on day one of the liquid diet, and they were restarted only if necessary. The results were impressive.

“In the intervention arm of the study at one year, 46 percent of people were free of diabetes, off all their tablets. At two years, 36 percent were still free of diabetes, off all their tablets,” said Taylor. “We demonstrated that, yes, type 2 diabetes can be made to go away.”

In contrast, only 3 percent of the control group were free of diabetes and off meds after two years. (Granted, no one urged the control group to try, because that’s not part of “usual care.”) And of the 272 people in the two groups, 64 percent of those who lost at least 22 pounds were free of diabetes.

(The trial was funded by a charity—Diabetes UK—but some of Taylor’s coauthors had ties to the companies that created the diet program and sell the formula the researchers used.)

Why weight matters for type 2 diabetes

In a way, it’s no surprise that weight loss plays a key role in type 2 diabetes.

“This is such a crashingly simple disease,” explained Taylor. “It goes up in prevalence if a population is overfed. If a population is short of food, it disappears.”

Weight loss also helps explain the results of a company-funded, non-randomized trial using the pricey Virta program. (Virta offers a low-carb diet plan, blood sugar and ketone monitoring, and virtual counseling for a one-time $249 initiation fee plus $370 a month, though some insurance plans cover it.)

The average participant lost 26 pounds, and Virta reported type 2 diabetes reversal in 53 percent of participants after two years. But the study counted people as having “reversed” their diabetes even if they were still taking metformin, a drug that lowers blood sugar levels.2

Why does weight loss matter? About a decade ago, researchers suggested that excess fat in the liver was making the body “resistant” to its own insulin. And excess fat in the pancreas was making it produce less insulin.3

two women walking
Shoot for a half hour of brisk walking daily to lower your risk of diabetes. And if you have diabetes, get up and move every half hour.

Insulin is like a key that allows blood sugar to enter cells. When it stops working well, blood sugar levels stay high, which makes the pancreas secrete more and more insulin until its beta cells eventually give out and produce little or none.

But in a 2011 pilot study, researchers put 11 people who had type 2 diabetes for less than four years on a very-low-calorie diet.4 “Within seven days, the fat had disappeared sufficiently for that liver insulin resistance completely to vanish,” noted Taylor. “Fasting blood glucose went back to normal.”

And after eight weeks, “we demonstrated that the fat disappeared out of the liver.” What’s more, “the level of fat in the pancreas gradually went down.”

That might have been what spurred the beta cells in the pancreas to ramp up their insulin output again. “It was amazing to watch the beta cells wake up,” said Taylor. His conclusion: “We know what causes type 2 diabetes: It’s too much fat in the liver and the pancreas.”

Taylor’s team is now starting the ReTUNE trial on people who do not have obesity. Like DiRECT, it will only enroll those who have had type 2 diabetes for less than six years. The odds of reversal diminish over time.

“It’s not easy keeping weight down after losing weight,” noted Taylor. But if you can, he adds, it’s possible to “escape from type 2 diabetes.”

Which diet is best?

What’s the best way to lose weight if you want to reverse type 2 diabetes?

The DiRECT trial used a very-low-calorie diet, largely as a way to cut calories. But a low-carb diet is also worth a try, as long as it’s healthy.

“There isn’t a definitive body of work at this time on the potential benefit of low-carbohydrate diets,” says Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, chair of the nutrition department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.5

“But some studies suggest that they may enable individuals to take less medication to treat their diabetes.”

For example, researchers randomly assigned 115 obese Australian adults with type 2 diabetes to lower-calorie diets that cut either fat or carbs.6 The low-fat diet relied on healthy carbs like whole grains rather than white flour and sugars. The low-carb diet largely used healthy unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats.

a low-carb bowl
Rule of thumb: Fill half your plate with vegetables and/or fruit, a quarter with plant or animal protein, and a quarter (or less) with whole grains.

After one year, both groups had the same weight loss and average blood sugar levels, but the low-carb group was able to cut down on diabetes medications, and their blood sugar levels were less erratic.

“You can have two people with the same average blood sugar level, but in some people, blood sugar might be going up and down fairly dramatically and in others, it may go up and down just a little,” explains Mayer-Davis. “Less variability is better for your long-term health.”

And fewer diabetes meds means fewer side effects and lower costs, she adds.

More evidence for cutting carbs comes from a small Danish study—funded in part by a Scandinavian dairy company—that supplied 28 participants who had type 2 diabetes and obesity with all of their food for six weeks.7

A lower-carb diet (with more protein and unsaturated fat) led to lower levels of hemoglobin A1c, liver fat, and pancreatic fat than a higher-carb diet (with less protein and unsaturated fat). Both diets had the same number of calories and, by design, neither led to weight loss.

Where do we go from here?

“I would do a trial where people could be randomized to one of, say, three diets for, say, three or four months,” says Mayer-Davis.

“And then if they’re doing well on the diet, they stay on it. But if they’re not doing well, they get to switch to one of the other diets. It’s called a SMART design, for sequential multiple assignment randomized trial.”

A SMART trial would likely cut the number of dropouts, she adds.

“And it’s closer to what happens in clinical medicine. If a treatment isn’t working for someone, you’re not going to keep them on it for two years.”

Switching diets would also allow people to pick one they can stick with.

“We’re learning that one size doesn’t fit all,” says Mayer-Davis. “Different diets won’t work the same for all people, to say nothing of people’s preferences and behavior.”

The key is weight loss, whether you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, she adds. “It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as the foods are healthy.”

The bottom line

■ The best way to dodge type 2 diabetes is to lose (or not gain) extra pounds.
■ Cutting carbs—especially white flour, potatoes, juice, and sugary drinks—may help lower blood sugar even if you don’t lose weight.
■ Replace unhealthy carbs with unsaturated fats like olive or canola oil, nuts, avocado, and fatty fish.
■ Shoot for at least 30 minutes of brisk walking or other aerobic exercise daily. Avoid sitting for long periods.
■ For more on the DiRECT trial, including veggie-rich recipes, go to
■ If you have type 2 diabetes, don’t try a very-low-calorie or a low-carb diet without a doctor’s help. They may cause dangerously low blood sugar, and your doctor may need to adjust your medications.

Diabetes 101

Insulin acts as a key that allows blood sugar (glucose) to enter the body’s cells, where it can be burned for fuel or stored.

But in some people, the key can’t open the lock.

To compensate for that “insulin resistance,” the pancreas pumps out more and more insulin, but it’s not enough to keep blood sugar from creeping up to “prediabetes” levels. After years of straining to keep up, the pancreas starts to fail and blood sugar reaches the “diabetes” range.

That’s type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system destroys the pancreas’s ability to make insulin. Type 1 accounts for only about 5 percent of diabetes.

Do you have diabetes?

Hemoglobin A1c, a long-term measure of blood sugar, is the easiest way to test for diabetes.

1Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 7: 344, 2019.
2Front. Endocrinol. 2019. doi:10.3389/fendo.2019.00348.
3Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 7: 726, 2019.
4Diabetologia 54: 2506, 2011.
5Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 7: 331, 2019.
6Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 102: 780, 2015.
7Diabetologia 2019. doi:10.1007/s00125-019-4956-4.

Photos: deberarr/, Monkey Business/, Vladislav Nosik/ Illustration: designua/