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New findings from our research into diabetes and disordered eating

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We’ve rounded up the findings from two vital research projects we funded to help treat and prevent eating problems in people with type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Having diabetes can mean you’re more at risk of developing disordered eating, but this serious issue has for too long been overlooked in research.

Our Diabetes Research Steering Groups identified how much we still don’t know about how and why people with diabetes develop eating problems or disorders, and importantly, how to prevent or treat them.

So, in 2020, we took action. Thanks to your donations, we funded two urgently needed research projects that aimed to fill this gap. Now the projects have finished, we’ve taken a look at what our scientists have made happen.  

Preventing disordered eating in children with type 1 diabetes

With our funding, Dr Christina Jones at the University of Surrey has developed a first-of-its-kind intervention designed to help children and young people with type 1 diabetes avoid disordered eating. It’s thought one in three children and young people with type 1 diabetes are affected by eating problems.

There’s evidence that involving parents or carers is essential in helping children recover from eating disorders. So, Dr Jones wanted to know if a programme for parents of children with type 1 diabetes could offer a new way to help prevent disordered eating in the future.

The programme they designed teaches parents about type 1 diabetes and eating problems and aims to help them spot early warning signs, and get their children the right support. The research team worked closed with families of children with type 1 diabetes and healthcare professionals, including nurses, psychologists, dietitians and diabetes paediatricians, to co-create the programme and make sure it meets their needs.

Our researchers then tested their programme with parents and compared them with others who did not get the programme right away. In total 89 parents took part in the trial. They filled out questionnaires before and during the study that measured how they and their children felt about type 1 diabetes, eating, and wellbeing. The researchers also checked the children and young people’s blood sugar levels, weight, medication use, and healthcare visits.

The research team found that most parents liked the programme and found it helpful. They also found positive changes in the parents and children who got the programme compared to those who did not. For example, children were more likely to feel full after eating, reported fewer eating problems and diabetes distress, and more wellbeing.

This kick-off study has led to a new intervention and given us encouraging signs that it's beneficial. This groundwork will allow researchers to carry out a larger trial of the programme next, to fully test if it helps to prevent eating problems in children and young people with type 1 diabetes.

Helping people with type 2 diabetes and binge eating

In our second project, Dr Gemma Traviss-Turner and a team at the University of Leeds developed a programme to help treat people with type 2 diabetes and binge eating disorder.

One in four people living with type 2 diabetes are thought to experience binge eating disorder. That’s around one million people in the UK. It’s when you eat a lot of food in a short space of time and don’t feel in control.

People with binge eating disorder are more likely to develop obesity, high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, have poorer mental wellbeing and find it more difficult to manage their weight. But there weren’t any treatments designed for them. And because binge eating disorder can be associated with feelings of shame and guilt, it can be more difficult for people to seek help.

Dr Travviss-Turner and team adapted an intervention, which they know works well for adults with binge eating disorder, so it could be used online and is tailored to the needs of people with type 2 diabetes. They worked closely with people with the condition and their healthcare professionals to do this, getting their feedback on what they find helpful and practical.

The new programme they developed is a guided self-help intervention. It’s made up of seven sections, which people complete over 12 weeks, alongside support sessions from a trained guide.

Our researchers then tested the new programme with 22 people with type 2 diabetes. Before the programme, 90% of people reported binge eating. At the end, people showed a significant reduction in binge eating. This continued to improve further after the programme, with no one meeting the criteria for binge eating.

People also reported positive changes in depression and anxiety symptoms. When the researchers spoke to participants three months later, people also reported improvements in their diabetes management, eating more mindfully, and having increased self-confidence. There was no change in the participant’s weight.

Overall, this study shows us that online guided self-help that’s tailored to the needs of people with type 2 diabetes is a promising approach to improve binge eating and mental wellbeing. This has given the researchers the evidence they need to plan a larger study to test it more thoroughly to see how effective it really is.

Dr Faye Riley, Research Communications Manager at Diabetes UK, said:

“We’re proud to have funded these first-of-their-kind studies that came about by listening to the needs and concerns of people with living diabetes. Eating problems for people with diabetes can have serious consequences for physical and mental health, but had been neglected in research for too long.

“These studies have opened up new possibilities for developing better care and support for people with diabetes and disordered eating. We’re eager to follow how the findings will be built upon by future research and how they could take us closer to effective interventions that will make a difference to the millions of people with diabetes who experience eating problems.”

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