If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you might be feeling confused. What does this mean for your future?
Is your metabolism permanently broken? Can it be fixed? Will you be around to play with your grandkids?
Big, important stuff is on your mind. And so, maybe for the first time in your life, you’re ready to put your health first.
To this end, you’re considering going Keto. You’ve heard evidence—both anecdotal and scientific—on the Ketogenic diet reversing diabetes. Still, you’re skeptical.
That’s understandable. There are plenty of fad diets out there, and it’s wise to regard them with suspicion.
But when you look at the data, Keto doesn’t fall into the fad category. Multiple randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of science) suggest that it can, through multiple mechanisms, help with diabetes.[*] [*]
This article will cover how, exactly, Keto can help with this metabolic disorder. Then you can decide for yourself if a low-carb diet is right for you.
What Is Type 2 Diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar and insulin levels. Often, the risk of type 2 diabetes is increased by obesity, and may additionally lead to high blood pressure, and high triglyceride levels. This state of metabolic unrest can also be known as metabolic syndrome.[*]
When someone has type 2 diabetes (which about 1 in 10 Americans do) their risk for chronic disease skyrockets.[*] This means a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and many other degenerative conditions.[*]
At its core, the problem of type 2 diabetes is a problem with insulin function. Insulin is your blood sugar boss. It gets released by the pancreas after you eat to store excess blood sugar (usually from digesting carbs) as either glycogen (stored glucose) or fat.[*]
But when blood sugar keeps spiking (on a high-carb diet), your glycogen storage capacity in muscle and liver tissue quickly fills up, like an overhead compartment stuffed with luggage. As a result, insulin has only one place to shove the excess sugar when you over-consume calories or simple carbs: Into the belly of the plane as body fat.
In other words, the cells that normally hold blood sugar as glycogen stop listening to insulin. They just can’t store any more of it! But fat cells still can.
This is called insulin resistance, and it’s at the center of type 2 diabetes. When someone is insulin resistant, blood sugar stays high, insulin levels stay high, and runaway fat storage ensues.
What’s the root cause of insulin resistance, and therefore type 2 diabetes? For the most part, it’s diet and lifestyle factors. Specifically, the “standard American diet” loaded with nutrient-poor, high-carb foods like processed sugars and grains, combined with the sedentary lifestyle practiced by millions of Americans.
This “standard American diet” and sedentary lifestyle frequently lead to weight gain and obesity, which has dangerous and damaging inflammatory effects on the body and its metabolic processes, including the insulin resistance which may lead to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
Deep Dive: Insulin Resistance, Inflammation, and Obesity
There are a lot of factors in the development of type 2 diabetes, but as we’ve touched on it is mainly an issue of insulin mismanagement within the body.
In a healthy metabolism, insulin triggers cells within the body to “open” to receive glucose from the bloodstream to be used as energy. Insulin is released after eating, signaled by rising blood glucose levels, as a “key” to open the cells to receive this glucose for energy use.
When foods -- especially ones high in refined carbohydrates like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or made from refined white flours -- are over-consumed Three things will occur:
- Insulin is over-produced, as blood-glucose levels are more frequently raised than is ideal, and cells eventually become “resistant” to the too-frequent insulin secretion, leaving glucose in the bloodstream and causing “high blood sugar levels.”[*]
- Excess calories beyond what can be used as energy by the cells are converted to fat and stored, often in the abdominal region (called “visceral fat.”)
- This storage of visceral fat, along with the overconsumption of sugar and simple carbohydrates, creates an inflammatory response in the body which damages the body’s insulin response, and causes the “insulin resistance” that is implicated in the development of type 2 diabetes.[*][*]
When cells of the body become “insulin resistant” they no longer respond appropriately to the call to use glucose in the blood stream for energy. Ultimately, this leads to excessively elevated blood-glucose levels, which leads to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
Visceral fat storage, or obesity, can come from over-consumption of calories of any kind, but most frequently is from excessive refined-carbohydrate consumption (sugar, soda, processed foods, “junk food,” etc.) While it is possible to overconsume “healthy” calories and see weight gain, it is less likely to lead to the dangerous visceral fat, obesity, and inflammatory conditions within the body that will lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes than the over-consumption of high-carb, sugary calories is.
Where Keto Comes In
The Keto diet is particularly effective in healing insulin resistance, and ultimately type 2 diabetes, because it decreases blood-glucose and inflammation levels in the body.
When you reduce consumption of all carbohydrates for a time with a Keto diet, the body is not called on to activate the insulin-glucose system of energy-burning, instead burning ketones and fat for fuel. This allows the system to effectively reset itself. With lowered blood-glucose levels and less insulin production required, over time the cells may become appropriately sensitive to insulin again.
In addition to this, the fat-burning effects of a Keto diet can result in a loss of the “visceral” or abdominal fat also implicated in the inflammatory processes causing insulin resistance and high blood-glucose levels.
A low-carb Keto diet, however, is the opposite of the Standard American Diet. Let’s see how it might help with diabetes.
How Keto Can Help With Diabetes
The Ketogenic diet (or Keto diet) is a high-fat, low-carb eating plan in which you eat 60-70% of your calories from fat, 20-30% from protein, and 5-10% from carbohydrates.[*] Keeping your macros in these ratios trains your metabolism to enter a fat-burning state called ketosis.
Think of ketosis as the opposite of diabetes. Instead of fostering high blood sugar, ketosis is generally a state of lower blood sugar, maintained within a healthy range. Ditto for insulin and its resultant fat-storage mode.[*]
Here are three specific ways that Keto improves diabetes:
#1: Weight loss
Standard diabetes protocols attempt to stimulate weight loss through calorie reduction. Unfortunately, long-term calorie restriction leads to a sustained metabolic slowdown, and the weight comes back when normal portions are resumed.[*]
Keto, however, has been shown to help with weight loss and weight maintenance in obese and diabetic populations.[*] In one study sponsored by Virta Health, type 2 diabetics lost an average of 30.4 pounds after one year of supervised Keto dieting.[*]
Why does Keto get these results? One big reason: By reducing hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y.[*] The result is less hunger, less overeating, less weight gain.
#2: Blood sugar control
High blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is the primary clinical feature of type 2 diabetes.[*] It’s diagnosed by measuring fasting blood glucose or average blood glucose (HbA1c).
What raises blood sugar? Carbs! Diets high in “simple” carbs like sugars, refined flours and grains, high-sugar fruits, and dairy have been shown to worsen hyperglycemia in diabetics.[*]
Keto is the opposite of a high-carb diet. By keeping carbs low, the Keto diet removes the dietary driver of diabetic hyperglycemia.
#3: Insulin function
Those with late-stage type 2 diabetes often need insulin injections to manage their blood sugar levels. But since insulin itself isn’t the problem, but rather the body’s healthy management OF insulin, this is more of a bandaid than a cure.
Instead of piling on more insulin, Keto addresses the root cause of the problem: high blood sugar levels and inflammation that lead to insulin resistance. Eliminating carbs can help normalize blood sugar, then normal insulin function can slowly be restored as the body heals, and the fat-storing cycle of insulin resistance is broken.
Evidence? The Keto diet has been shown, in multiple studies, to improve insulin function—even to the point of helping diabetics eliminate the need for supplemental insulin.[*] [*] This helps create conditions for sustainable weight loss.
Clinical Evidence for Keto Reversing Diabetes
Time to review some hard evidence now. Here’s a small yet informative sample of the research suggesting Keto can reverse diabetes:
- The Virta Health study. Researchers put 218 type 2 diabetics on a Ketogenic diet for a full year. By the end of the study, 60% had reversed their diabetes (measured by HbA1c reductions), and they’d lost 30.4 pounds on average. Incredibly, 94% reduced or eliminated insulin therapy.[*]
- The Nutrition & Metabolism study. Eighty-four type 2 diabetics were randomized to eat either a low-carb Keto diet or a calorie-restricted, higher-carb diet. After 24 weeks, the Keto dieters had significant improvements in blood sugar, insulin, and body weight compared to the higher-carb group.[*]
- The consensus report. A recent consensus report published in the journal Diabetes Care cited low-carb diets as the nutritional intervention with the “most evidence” for improving blood sugar levels in diabetic populations.[*]
There are other examples, but the conclusion is fairly clear: When it comes to reversing diabetes, the Keto diet is extremely promising.
Quick Tips For Going Keto
By now you’re probably feeling a surge of motivation to try the Keto diet. Is it really as simple as eating low carb and high fat?
Yes and no. While the basic premise is easy to grok, in reality, it requires some planning and effort. Nothing good in life comes easy, right?
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Track your macros. Use the Carb Manager app to log your daily meals, stay on point with macros, and ensure hidden carbs don’t derail your Ketogenic goals.
- Track your ketones. Confirm you’re in ketosis by measuring ketone levels in blood, breath, or urine.[*] Blood tests are the gold standard, and we recommend the Keto-Mojo meter. And if you want to measure ketones in the breath (which correlate with blood ketones levels) consider the BIOSENSE breath meter. These affordable and accurate at-home meters, by the way, integrate with Carb Manager to help you visualize the correlation between your diet and ketone levels over time.
- Write things down. Planning and tracking your exercise, meals, energy levels, and sleep takes willpower out of the equation and helps you stay accountable to your health.
- Get enough electrolytes. Low-carb diets are diuretic, meaning you excrete more water, sodium, and potassium through urine.[*] Deficiency, unfortunately, can cause “Keto flu”-like symptoms. Increase salt intake by adding salt or bouillon cubes to your water, and increase potassium intake by eating potassium-rich foods like spinach and meat. Other electrolytes like magnesium and calcium are also crucial for strong bones, a properly functioning nervous system, energy production, and much more. See this article for tips on getting enough electrolytes on your keto diet.
One last thing. Adapting to burning fat for energy can take 2 to 4 weeks, and maybe more if you’re very insulin resistant.[*] This doesn’t mean you’ll be suffering for a month, but it does mean your desired benefits probably won’t manifest overnight.
Hang in there. Your health is worth it.
Looking to get started with some tasty Keto recipes? We’ve got thousands of Keto and low-carb recipes available in the Carb Manager “kitchen”. Check them out.
Disclaimer: If you have a diabetes diagnosis it is important that you consult, and work with, your doctor or healthcare provider should you choose to manage your health with the Keto diet.