Can Intermittent Fasting Help People with Diabetes?

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In November, we celebrate Thanksgiving—arguably the biggest food holiday of the year—and recognize National Diabetes Month in the U.S. More than 30 million people living in the U.S. have diabetes—about 29 million of them have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes makes it harder for you to use insulin (insulin insensitivity). People with type 2 diabetes may be more likely to also have high blood sugar (glucose) levels and may be overweight.

If you have diabetes, you may be trying to lose or at least maintain a healthy body weight. You may also need to find a way to keep symptoms—like high blood sugar—and calories in check. There are many potential ways of trying to do this, from dieting to increasing the amount of exercise you do. Each weight loss method has some level of benefit. Recent studies have begun to look at the effect of intermittent fasting—alternating periods of normal eating and fasting—on diabetes. A recent study from China looked at blood sugar improvement of obese diabetic mice that followed either a low-calorie or intermittent fasting diet.

The study showed that the animals on an intermittent fasting schedule over 12 weeks had better blood sugar levels, glucose clearance—the elimination of glucose through urination—and insulin sensitivity than mice that ate normally or followed a low-calorie diet. While this study did not show any differences in weight loss between the groups, the mice’s response to insulin and ability to keep blood sugar in a normal range improved.

Other research on the topic shows similar results, including a study published in the American Journal of Physiology—Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. Intermittent fasting seems to be able to decrease blood glucose levels, increase glucose clearance, and make mice more sensitive to insulin. These studies in animals suggest that people with diabetes may get the same benefits when they restrict the hours when they eat—with their doctor’s knowledge of course.

So, if you’re watching your weight or if your metabolic markers are a concern, ask your doctor about whether intermittent fasting might help enhance your body’s ability to keep blood sugar levels in a normal and healthy range. Happy Thanksgiving!

Jeffery S. Tessem, PhD, is an assistant professor of nutrition science in the nutrition, dietetics and food science department at Brigham Young University. His laboratory studies molecular mechanisms to expand functional beta cell mass as a treatment for diabetes.

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