August/September 2022 Issue
Are Prediabetes & Type 2 Diabetes Reversible?
By Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDCES, BC-ADM, FADCES
Vol. 24, No. 6, P. 26
Today’s Dietitian reviews the latest international consensus report on type 2 diabetes remission and provides expert guidance for RDs who counsel these individuals.
When people are diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, it’s human nature for them to believe promises that there may be a “cure,” or the ability to “reverse their diabetes,” or “reset their blood sugar.” These promises proliferate on the internet, in book titles, on TV shows, on supplement labels, and more.
While it’s known that if prediabetes or type 2 diabetes is detected early and weight loss is sufficiently maintained long term through consistent healthful eating and physical activity, and for some, use of glucose-lowering and/or obesity medications, and/or metabolic surgery, people can reverse or stall the progressive course of dysglycemia and type 2 diabetes.1-4 However, is it accurate to call this a “cure” or “reversal?” Perhaps for some people. But for others, as the years pass by, glucose tolerance decreases and/or weight gain or regain occurs. And eventually, glucose levels may rise high enough to meet the diagnostic criteria for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.5
A recent longitudinal analysis of more than 50,000 medical records of adults aged 65 and older between 2010 and 2018 across the United States showed the annual progression rate (APR) from A1c-defined prediabetes to type 2 diabetes was lower (3.5%) for people with a BMI of 19 to 25 vs 7.6% among those with a BMI of 40 or higher. People with an A1c of 5.7% to 5.9% had an APR of 2.8% compared with those with an APR of 8.2% who had an A1c of 6% to 6.4%.4
Dietitians may wonder, “What is the most accurate word to use to define this potentially temporal normoglycemia? How should we counsel people diagnosed with prediabetes and early-onset type 2 diabetes about their glycemic status, near-future action plan, long-term follow-up, and likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes?”
The “Consensus Report: Definition and Interpretation of Remission in Type 2 Diabetes,” which updates a 2009 consensus publication,6 recently was published by the American Diabetes Association (ADA),1 and concomitantly in the journals of three international diabetes-focused organizations: The Endocrine Society, European Association for the Study of Diabetes, and Diabetes UK.
The optimal term the expert authors of the consensus report chose to describe a period of normoglycemia is “remission” after considering the terms “resolved,” “reversal,” and “cure.”1
In this article, Today’s Dietitian explains why the authors agreed on this term, how remission is defined and why a definition is needed, and when health care providers and their patients in remission should be advised on how to manage blood glucose as the years go by.
Consensus Report Findings
According to the consensus report, the authors chose the term “remission” to describe a period of normoglycemia because “remission strikes an appropriate balance, noting that diabetes may not always be active and progressive yet implying that a notable improvement [in glycemia] may not be permanent.” This term also considers that people will continue to need ongoing support to delay relapse along with regular monitoring and intervention if hyperglycemia recurs. However, the term “remission” shouldn’t be interpreted as “no evidence of disease,” as it is in the oncology field, because glycemia is rarely completely normalized with interventions. The authors also recognized that the selected term also may impact health policy decisions.
Why Did the Authors Define Remission?
The ADA 2009 consensus statement on this topic was outdated.6 “We developed a simple and standardized definition of remission in type 2 diabetes because of renewed interest in successful early treatment,” says Matthew Riddle, MD, an emeritus professor in the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and clinical nutrition at Oregon Health and Sciences University and lead author on this consensus report. “The statement was not meant to evaluate current claims or to provide direct guidance for clinical decisions, but rather to encourage more standardized methods of collecting data and assessing outcomes by [people], providers, and clinical trialists to provide better insights about who is likely to benefit most from various treatments and to support future guidance,” he says.
What Is the Definition of Remission?1
• A1c 6.5% or below and remaining at that level for at least three months without using glucose-lowering medications. This doesn’t include weight loss medications that may, by virtue of weight loss, improve glycemia. (A1c is based on the NGSP reference method).7 If a person’s A1c is considered unreliable, use a 24-hour mean glucose concentration from a continuous glucose monitor or fasting plasma glucose <126 mg/dL.
• Remission may be achieved through lifestyle changes, medical or surgical interventions, or a combination of approaches.
• An interval of at least six months after initiating lifestyle interventions is needed before an A1c check can reliably evaluate the response.
• An interval of at least three months is needed after surgical intervention to enable A1c to stabilize.
The authors offer a caveat: “Any criterion for defining remission will necessarily be arbitrary, a point on a continuum of glycemic levels.” However, “a return to nearly normal glycemic regulation … is most likely early in the course of [type 2 diabetes] and can involve partial recovery of both insulin secretion and insulin action.”
What Population of People and Diagnoses Does This Definition Include?
• People with overweight and obesity. Weight gain, if not reversed, may not be transient. This is the most common cause of progression of dysglycemia. Weight loss through lifestyle interventions and/or weight management medication early on sometimes can restore normoglycemia, and medication can be discontinued.
• Pregnant women with gestational diabetes. In most women, glycemia returns to normal postpregnancy, yet gestational diabetes serves as a red flag for a future diagnosis of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
• People taking steroids. Steroid use, generally long term vs a short course, can lead to insulin resistance.
• Individuals with acute illness or undergoing stressful life experiences. These events can cause hyperglycemia, particularly in individuals who may have a propensity for glucose intolerance.
• People who experience surgical or enteral interventions that promote weight loss and metabolic control.
When and How Often Should People in ‘Remission’ Monitor Glycemia?
Recognizing that hyperglycemia frequently recurs, A1c should be measured “not less frequently than yearly.” People should be encouraged to maintain their weight loss and a healthful lifestyle. The consensus report authors highlight that people who achieve remission likely have had periods of hyperglycemia, and their bodies may have experienced the harmful effects that often lead to diabetes complications. For this reason, people should have regular medical checkups, including exams the ADA recommends in its Standards of Care.8
Role of RDs
Research illustrates time and again that initial weight loss and keeping as many pounds off as possible over time is the surest way to achieve and maintain remission and realize other related health benefits.9-12 “Numerous studies show that weight loss, between 3% and 10% from a starting weight, can result in remission especially if initiated early in the disease course,” says Hollie Raynor, PhD, RD, associate dean and a professor in the department of nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “What we don’t currently have is specific evidence that supports that one lifestyle or behavior change will be easier to implement or result in more health benefits than another,” Raynor says. How weight is lost, whether through lifestyle changes (ie, food choices, eating habits, and physical activity) or through metabolic surgery and/or an increasing array of weight loss medications, should be a client’s individual decision based on evidence-based information shared by his or her clinician. “The services of an RD are invaluable as a source of knowledge and support initially and in the all-important long-term monitoring and support,” Raynor says.
According to Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDCES, creator of Prediabetes Turnaround, a video course for people with prediabetes, “So many people come to RDs with a great sense of panic and urgency requesting help with drastic weight loss and radical diet changes. We need to help them understand that the underlying problems driving their prediabetes and type 2 diabetes did not occur simply with a diagnosis.”
Weisenberger encourages people to focus on what they do eat vs what they shouldn’t eat. Educate clients so they no longer fear and feel the need to avoid carbohydrate-containing foods, but rather aim to eat foods with a variety of health-boosting nutrients and phytonutrients that evidence shows can decrease insulin resistance and improve cardiometabolic health. Weisenberger recommends helping clients put their emphasis on sustainable weight loss and the implementation of incremental lifestyle changes. Expect these changes to be different for each person.
“Changes that improve A1c but are too restrictive to last will offer only temporary improvement in glucose levels,” says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, director of nutrition counseling for the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of The Prediabetes Diet Plan: How to Reverse Prediabetes and Prevent Diabetes Through Healthy Eating and Exercise, and other books focused on women’s health. “Encourage people to start the day with a balanced breakfast and then to eat often enough to manage hunger and reduce the risk of overeating in the evening,” Wright says.
Both Weisenberger and Wright highlight the significant benefits of various types of physical activity. “Physical activity is a natural insulin sensitizer, so encouraging clients to develop a realistic, as close to daily as possible, exercise plan that fits their lifestyle is critical to achieving and maintaining remission,” Wright says.
Weisenberger adds, “Strength training is an often-missed treatment component. Muscles utilize some of the glucose produced from a carbohydrate-containing meal, so it’s worth maintaining or building muscle to have a larger repository for that postprandial glucose.”
— Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDCES, BC-ADM, FADCES, is owner of Hope Warshaw Associates, LLC, a diabetes- and nutrition-focused consultancy based in Asheville, North Carolina. She’s a book author and freelance writer who specialized for many years in diabetes care and provides diabetes counseling through 9am.health. Warshaw served as the 2016 president of ADCES and currently serves as the 2022–2023 chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation.
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