DUBAI // Doctors and patients in the UAE were sceptical of a new study from the UK that claims an extremely low-calorie diet can cure diabetes.
Eleven people with Type 2 diabetes took part in the study, funded by Diabetes UK. The participants were asked to cut their food intake to 600 calories a day for two months as part of a clinical trial by scientists from Newcastle University. To put that into perspective, a healthy three meals a day would produce 1,200 to 1,500 calories. Three months after starting the diet, seven of the 11 participants were free of diabetes.
Dr Ghassan Darwiche, an internist/diabetologist and chief medical officer at Rashid Centre for Diabetes and Research, had his doubts about the results.
"I still believe that Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a progressive disease based on genetics and a sedentary lifestyle," Dr Darwiche said.
He explained that beta cells, which make and release insulin, a hormone that controls the level of glucose in our blood, are reduced in the early stages of the disease. He said this weakness becomes more significant as the condition progresses.
"Healthy living at this state could, however, always influence better diabetes control with less need for anti-diabetic drugs," he said. Abed Mohammed, 40, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago, was also sceptical.
"I don't believe this diet would work ... in my case it is genetic. I believe diabetes is an indication that other diseases might develop and a healthy lifestyle is in order," said Mr Mohammed, of Jordan.
The UAE has the second-highest level of diabetes in the world, with a rate of 19.5 per cent, according to the International Diabetes Federation. About 288,000 people in the country have been diagnosed with the Type 2 form of the disease, and according to a study by healthcare provider United Health Group, the total could rise to 440,000 by 2020.
Diabetes increases a person's risk of heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and some infections. Mr Mohammed said he believes a healthy person needs more calories than the new diet allows.
"I need a combination of a healthy diet, as well as oral medication," Mr Mohammed said. "I know there will be a stage where my body will no longer be able to produce insulin on its own, and I may have to resort to injecting insulin. In addition, I have to take at least 1,200 calories a day, so I do not think it is practical to half that. If you are an energetic and active person, you need the calories from food and 600 calories just isn't enough."
Dr Darwiche cited the small number of participants in the study.
"It is not surprising that Type 2 diabetics in a state of "starvation" (600 cal/day) have improved /normal blood glucose levels since the need for insulin decreases when the carbohydrate intake is reduced," Dr Darwiche said. "The present study does not answer as to whether the improved diabetes state is due to weight reduction or an actual beta cell improvement. Also, the long-term effect of this non-physiological way of feeding is not clarified, and from a statistical standpoint not significant to take any conclusions based on the very few number of patients (11 subjects) in this study."
Dr Richard Stangier, a consultant of internal medicine and a diabetologist at Al Rawdah German Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, also had reservations about the diet, but said it may be of some use for those who have the discipline to stick to it, along with exercise.
"It will not stop the development of diabetes because it is a hereditary condition, but it will postpone it significantly," he said, adding that he recommends "a lifestyle change with reduced calorie intake, regular physical activity, regular follow-up with a diabetologist and compliance with the treatment".
Abdul Reza D, 60, was diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago and maintains a healthy diet. He was sceptical about the reduced amount of calories in the diet.
"I prefer eating three healthy meals, because I cannot eat just one meal a day ... my blood pressure will drop," he said. "I eat vegetables, fruits and bread with fibre. I also try my best to walk every day, but I am not so sure I can cut down my calorie intake without an adverse effect."
* With additional reporting by Haneen al Dajani.