Around 90 per cent of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are overweight, says Diabetes UK – but did you know that shedding a few pounds can lower your risk of developing the condition and even improve your symptoms.
According to Diabetes UK, around three million people in the UK are living with a diabetes diagnosis, and an estimated 850,000 have diabetes type 2 and do not realise it.
Losing weight is the most important step to take to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and Paul McArdle, chair of the British Dietetic Association’s specialist diabetes group, says 60 to 90 per cent of type 2 diabetics may not have developed symptoms had they not been overweight.
‘There’s some evidence that you can even temporarily reverse your symptoms if you lose a significant amount of weight – about 15 per cent of your body weight. Obviously, you still technically have type 2 diabetes and symptoms can reappear, especially if you regain this weight.
‘Weight loss will, however, slow down the progression of diabetes and the development of complications including eventually needing insulin,’ he adds.
How can people with diabetes lose weight?
Libby Dowling, clinical adviser with Diabetes UK, says the charity recommends people with diabetes eat a diet low in saturated fat, salt and sugar, with at least five portions a day of fruit and vegetables – cutting portion sizes and calories to lose weight.
‘We’ve moved away from saying that all meals for people with diabetes should be based around starchy carbohydrates – nowadays we just say they should be included in your diet,’ explained Libby.
But Libby emphasises that however healthy your diet, you still need to reduce calories and portion size to lose weight.
‘One thing we definitely recommend after your diagnosis is ask for a referral to a registered dietitian to get information about eating healthily,’ says Libby.
‘We don’t recommend eating “diabetic foods” such as diabetic chocolate or marmalade. These can still raise your blood glucose, be high in fat, have a laxative effect and are expensive.’
What else can be done?
Other tips include:
- Eating three meals a day. This helps control appetite and keep blood sugar levels stable.
- Limiting sugar and sugary foods. Instead of avoiding sugar completely, use it in moderation – swap sugary drinks for sugar-free diet versions or use artificial sweeteners in drinks.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation. Wine and beer are high in “empty” calories, so cut back on alcohol.
- Aiming for at least two portions of oily fish a week. These include mackerel, salmon, sardine and pilchards .They contain a polyunsaturated fat, omega 3, which helps protect against heart disease.
- Choosing carbohydrates with a lower glycaemic index. These are slowly absorbed so won’t affect your blood glucose as much and help you feel fuller for longer. Foods to look for include granary, pumpernickel and rye, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam, porridge oats and natural muesli.
Can people with diabetes fast?
Libby says there is anecdotal evidence that some people with diabetes successfully lose weight with fasting diets such as the 5:2 diet, where two days a week an intake of 500 calories a day is encouraged.
‘What we don’t have is concrete evidence or long-term studies about their effectiveness so we can’t recommend it – but we recognise it's an option some people with diabetes may want to try,’ explains Libby.
‘Also it does depend on how your diabetes is controlled – if you are on medication, fasting may lower your blood sugar to too low a level (hypoglycaemia) – so always talk to your doctor or diabetes nurse before starting a fasting regime to check it’s safe for you.’
Does your waist matter?
According to the American Heart Asociation having diabetes increases your chances of developing heart disease and strokes by between two to four times.
Waist measurement is a key indicator of heart health – being fat around your middle or “apple shaped’’ is an indicator of the visceral fat around your organs.
A healthy waist size for all women is 80cm (31.5in) or less. For south Asian men it’s 90cm (35in) or less, and for other men it's 94cm (37in) or less.
Diet trends for people with diabetes
‘Unfortunately there’s no specific diet that’s especially good for encouraging weight loss around your waist,’ says Paul McArdle.
‘You need to concentrate on cutting calories and portion size, but there is evidence that the Mediterranean diet – lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, not much meat, lots of olive oil, oily fish, less processed foods – is particularly beneficial for diabetics in controlling blood glucose level, controlling cholesterol and weight loss.
‘A review published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found both Mediterranean and lower carbohydrate diets led to greater weight loss in diabetes,’ says Paul.
For more information on diabetes read our various fact sheets, or why not read our latest features on diet and exercise.