SINGAPORE – Diabetes can be reversed, even in people who have had it for several years. A study in Britain has proven that, and now, the National Healthcare Group (NHG) hopes to show that it can also work for Asians.
It is doing so throughthe Diabetes Reversal, which is aimed at encouraging at least some diabetics here to become free of a disease that can lead to severe consequences like blindness, kidney failure and even death.
The trigger to reversing diabetes is significantly reduce the weight of people who are overweight or obese, the target being a 10 per cent cut or a 15kg reduction over a period of six months.
Associate Professor Lim Su Chi, a senior consultantat Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) and a principal investigator of the NHG programme, said: “Weight loss is the strongest link to remission. More than half of diabetics here are overweight or obese.”
The British study found that the majority who were able to achieve the target weight loss were no longer diabetic. Those who remained diabetic after losing more than 15kg, had achieved better control of their sugar levels.
At the end of the first year, 46 per cent were no longer diabetic. However, not all were able to maintain this, with only 36 per cent staying free from diabetes at the end of the second year.
Associate Professor Tang Wern Ee, senior consultant at NHG Polyclinics (NHGP) and the program’s lead congress, said that is still a very good outcome, as it means that more than one in three were free of the disease.
Diabetes is a major problem here, with more than 400,000 people living with the disease. If nothing is done, the number of diabetics here is projected to surpass one million by 2050 and cost the country US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion).
In 2016, the Ministry of Health (MOH) declared a war on diabetes to try to slow the increase in numbers. People with diabetes are unable to use up the sugar in their blood. This can damage the blood vessels as well as reduce oxygen to the heart and brain. Two major contributory factors are being obese and not exercising enough.
Prof Tang said her team would like to see Singapore moving away from just treating the disease to getting more people reverting to a non-diabetic state.
The clinical trial will recruit 100 participants aged 21 to 60 with a body mass index (BMI) of between 27 and 45 – a normal BMI for Asians is 18.5 to 22.9 – who have had diabetes for less than six years and do not have complications caused by the disease.
Half will be with the control group who will continue to be cared for by their doctor. The other half will stop their medication and be put on a very low-calorie liquid diet for three months, or less, should they achieve the target weight loss earlier.
“The first five days on the liquid diet can be very difficult. They will feel hungry and very tired,” said Ms Pauline Xie, NHGP’s principal dietitian who is part of the study team. By day six though, the body starts to burn the stored fat in the body which will energise them.