The evidence behind intermittent fasting as a treatment for Type 2 Diabetes and what it means for you.
Since Michael Mosley super-charged the world’s awareness of Intermittent Fasting (IF) in 2012 with his TV series Eat, Fast and Live Longer, the diet has been steadily gaining popularity.
But Intermittent Fasting is more than another nutrition craze. Slowly, research is mounting to show the method can be used to manage serious life-threatening and life-shortening diseases, including Type 2 Diabetes.
How Intermittent Fasting works for Type 2 Diabetes
The underlying cause of Type 2 Diabetes is insulin resistance. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and its role is to transfer sugars from the blood and into the tissues, where it can be used as fuel or stored as fat.
For many people with Type 2 Diabetes, this process does not work efficiently, resulting in the body producing more insulin while blood sugar continues to climb. The ongoing production of higher levels of insulin creates even greater resistance to it, often resulting in Type 2 Diabetes getting progressively worse over time.
Most traditional Diabetes treatments and medications focus on reducing blood sugar levels, but some experts argue this addresses only the symptom of the disease, but not the cause.
Advocates of Intermittent Fasting as a treatment for Type 2 Diabetes say the method treats both symptom and cause. Fasting periods trigger a series of changes in the body that allow insulin levels and blood sugar levels to simultaneously reduce. Intermittent Fasting proponent Dr Jason Fung explains the process in this short video and this more in-depth video.
The evidence of the benefits of Intermittent Fasting for Type 2 Diabetes
Intermittent Fasting is a relatively new intervention for Type 2 Diabetes and the research behind it is qualified, but hopeful.
Anecdotal evidence tells of Type 2 Diabetes patients making significant improvements using IF – with some people no longer requiring medications and others ridding themselves of all signs of the disease.
The scientific evidence is more cautious, but still shows tentative positive results.
In a 2018 case study and a 2017 pilot study, strong improvements were shown in patients using Intermittent Fasting to tackle Type 2 Diabetes, but the authors caution that further research – with larger sample sizes and over a longer period of time – are needed.
A systematic review from 2020 compares Intermittent Fasting with a consistent low energy diet and finds that both are effective in patients with Type 2 Diabetes, although the researchers go on to stress that the link between IF and remission needs further investigation.
This 2019 in-depth review article is also encouraging. It was analysed by Harvard Medical School’s Dr Monique Tello – who is skeptical of IF’s superiority as a diabetes treatment – but still says this article provides evidence of IF as “a more realistic, sustainable, and effective approach for weight loss, as well as for diabetes prevention”.
What does the research mean if you have Type 2 Diabetes?
These early results indicate that Intermittent Fasting can be useful to treat and prevent Type 2 Diabetes, but it’s important that you choose an intervention that is sustainable and realistic for you.
All health treatment is personal. If you think IF might work for you, get started by following these steps:
1) Talk to your doctor about whether intermittent fasting is safe for you.
This is important for everyone, but especially if you have Type 2 Diabetes as you may need your medication adjusted and require close monitoring to guard against the possibility of low blood sugar incidents.
2) Choose between the different types of intermittent fasting.
Some recent research shows the Circadian method – which involves limiting eating to a 6 to 10-hour window during the daylight hours of each 24-hour cycle – may be more sustainable and effective.
3) Pair Intermittent Fasting with good nutrition.
Many experts encourage those with Type 2 Diabetes to follow a low-carb diet that includes plentiful fats, vegetables and proteins. The Mediterranean Diet is an often-cited and easy to understand example, and IF advocates like Dr Jason Fung encourage patients to pair their fasting with this kind of nutrition.