A low-calorie diet can be used to treat or manage type 2 diabetes according to research we've funded. But you need all the information before making big changes to your lifestyle, so let's start with the facts around low-calorie diets.
What's a low-calorie diet?
A low-calorie diet is made up of around 800 to 1,200 calories a day. It's a short-term diet of meal replacements (often soups or shakes) or very small portions of normal food. You would usually have the soups or shakes for about 12 weeks, then gradually reintroduce normal, healthy food again.
This type diet isn't right for everyone. You need to talk to your doctor before starting a low-calorie diet, so you can be sure that it's safe and could work for you.
It may sound obvious, but this diet isn’t easy. You'll need a lot of support from your doctor and other healthcare professionals, as well as the people around you.
Benefits and risks of a low-calorie diet
Your doctor can talk to you about the benefits and risks of a low-calorie diet.
A low-calorie diet can have side effects, including:
These side effects often go away after a while, but it's important to talk to your doctor if you have any of these, so they can keep a close eye on you.
If you use insulin or sulphonylurea tablets to manage your type 2 diabetes, being on a low-calorie diet can make hypos more likely. So you may need support to make changes to your medications and it may be useful to check your blood sugar levels more often. And there are more risks involved if you take tablets for high blood pressure too.
Some research, including our DiRECT trial, shows us that low-calorie diets delivered as part of a weight management programme can put some people's type 2 diabetes into remission. Remission means that your blood sugar levels go back to normal without needing to take diabetes medication to lower blood sugar levels. You might hear some people refer to this as type 2 diabetes being reversed.
Kathleen went into remission after being involved in the DiRECT study.
Our DiRECT research isn’t just about a low-calorie diet. It’s testing the diet as part of a programme, where people are supported by healthcare professionals to reintroduce healthy food back into their life and keep to a healthy weight in the future. So it's a lot more than just changing your diet.
There’s still vital information that research can shed light on. For example, we need to understand more about the effects of low-calorie diets in people who aren’t overweight, who take insulin, or who have had type 2 diabetes for a long time.
It’s fantastic news that, thanks to the results of research we have funded, NHS England is piloting a low calorie diet programme for some people with type 2 diabetes. But we don't yet know if this approach will work for everyone.
The low calorie diets are available in 21 areas of England. Find out what areas and more about this programme.
A number of Health Boards in Scotland have begun to roll out type 2 remission programmes.
A low calorie remission pilot based on the DiRECT research has been running in four Health Boards in Wales: Cardiff & Vale, Hywel Dda, Betsi Cadwaladar, Aneurin Bevan.
At the moment, there are no remission programmes available in Northern Ireland.
How to get more information
If you are interested in learning more about remission and want to find out about what support you may be able to get locally to lose weight, we would recommend speaking to your healthcare team.
To help chats between people with diabetes and healthcare professionals we have developed a type 2 diabetes remission Information Prescription. You can take this to your GP appointment
Starting a low-calorie diet
If you're thinking of starting a low-calorie diet, you need to speak to your doctor first to make sure it's safe.
They'll need to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs, and to keep an eye on any other medical conditions you may have. You may also need to test your blood sugars more often. Your doctor can also refer you to a dietitian, so you can get tailored advice and support.
Although our research has shown that it's possible to do this style of weight management programme, the people involved in the study have said it's really hard work. They had a lot of support and were monitored very closely.
Low-calorie diet soups and shakes are now available to some people with diabetes in the NHS pilot type 2 diabetes remission programme. Lots of different companies sell them. These kinds of meal replacements can be expensive, may not work for everyone and there's not much evidence about how they work in the long-term. It's important you talk to your doctor before buying any of these – they will be able to give you more advice.
Or you might be able to start a low-calorie diet by eating very small portions of regular foods. It can be difficult to make this nutritionally balanced though.
Diabetes diet meal plans
It's best to get advice from your doctor so you can talk about what kind of diet might be right for you. Everyone's different and what works for one person, may not work for someone else.
We recommend people with type 2 diabetes eat a healthy, balanced diet. This means lots of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, seafood and nuts, and to have less red meat and processed meat, sugary foods and drinks, and refined grains like white bread.
If you want to lose weight, speak to a healthcare professional about different approaches like low-carb and Mediterranean. Read our guide to weight loss when you have diabetes to get you started on your weight loss journey.
Always to talk to your GP before making major changes to the way you manage your diabetes.
And remember, you can give our helpline a call if you have any more questions, need support or if you just want to talk to someone.