Intermittent fasting - the diet that involves abstaining from food for set periods of time - is often touted as a way to lose weight while eating what you want. But a new study suggests that the diet could have additional benefits for people with type 2 diabetes, a disease that affects more than 30 million Americans.
The study found that three diabetic men were able to stop taking insulin - used to control blood sugar in diabetes - after trying an intermittent fasting diet. It was published Tuesday in the journal BMJ Case Reports, CNN reported.
Insulin is a hormone that's produced by the pancreas and regulates your blood sugar. In people with type 2 diabetes, however, the body becomes resistant to insulin and is no longer able to use it properly. Some people with the disease need to take insulin, typically via injection, to keep their blood sugar in a healthy range.
The three men in the study ranged in age from 40 to 67 and had all been taking insulin for their type 2 diabetes. Under doctor supervision, they began the fasting diet, abstaining from eating 24 hours straight three times a week. They ate only dinner on fasting days but could also consume, coffee, water, and broth.
Within 18 days, all of the men were able to stop taking insulin, meaning their blood sugar levels were controlled without it. One man reached that point even faster, in just five days, and two of the three patients were able to stop all their diabetes medications completely, the authors reported.
It's already known that people with type 2 diabetes may be able to reduce or completely stop insulin therapy with exercise, a healthy diet, and weight loss, according to the Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
But this appears to be the first study to find that intermittent fasting can achieve this benefit, the authors wrote.
Over the course of roughly a year, the men in the study also experienced other benefits: They lost weight and had improved their scores on the A1C, a blood test used to monitor average blood sugar levels over two to three months.
The men tolerated the diet well, too. One called it "easy" and the other patients said the diet made them feel "terrific," and "excellent," the study authors wrote.
Intermittent fasting allows adherents to eat what they want (within reason) while only changing the hours of the day during which they eat. There's a lot of hype around the trendy diet, thanks to anecdotal testimony from devotees and some preliminary evidence suggesting it help with weight loss and improve health measures like blood pressure, as Business Insider previously reported.
But much of the research on the diet's purported health benefits has been done in animals, which means we can't necessarily apply the results to humans.
This new study also had major limitations. It had a tiny sample size of three people and lacked a control group, so it's impossible to draw sweeping conclusions from the data. We still need more, better-designed research on this topic to determine if intermittent fasting is effective for type 2 diabetes and sustainable in the long term, Dr. Abhinav Diwan, associate professor of medicine, cell biology and physiology at the Washington University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.
And although it didn't happen to the men in this case study, there is evidence that fasting can cause diabetics to have dangerously low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, recommends that people with type 1 diabetes not trying fasting at all. One 2018 trial found that intermittent fasting caused a two-fold increase in hypoglycemia among patients with type 2 diabetes, as well.
So it's important for diabetics to consult a doctor about fasting or any other major dietary shifts.
"Clearly, there is need for caution, because diabetic people are prone to hypoglycemic episodes, and hypoglycemia can be fatal," Diwan told CNN. "People do not want to put them themselves at risk by fasting without consulting a doctor."
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