New research has given hope to hundreds of thousands of UAE residents suffering from type 2 diabetes, which until now has been regarded as a lifelong disease.
Scientists at the UK's Newcastle University revealed yesterday that the condition could be reversed by following an extreme low-calorie diet - a discovery that they say transforms thinking on the disease.
Eleven people taking part in a clinical trial reversed their diabetes by cutting their food intake to 600 calories a day for two months, and seven remained free of diabetes three months later.
"To have people free of diabetes after years with the condition is remarkable - and all because of an eight-week diet," said Professor Roy Taylor, who led the study. "This is a radical change in understanding type 2 diabetes.
"It will change how we can explain it to people newly diagnosed with the condition.
"While it has long been believed that someone with type 2 diabetes will always have the disease, and that it will steadily get worse, we have shown that we can reverse the condition."
Until now it had been thought that, as a progressive condition, type 2 diabetes could be controlled initially by diet, but then tablets and possibly insulin injections would be required. The condition is related to obesity.
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.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by an excess of glucose in the blood that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin - a hormone that breaks down glucose into energy in cells.
The research team said the low-calorie diet worked by removing fat which was clogging up the pancreas, allowing normal insulin secretion to resume.
"We believe this shows that type 2 diabetes is all about energy balance in the body," added Prof Taylor. "If you are eating more than you burn, then the excess is stored in the liver and pancreas as fat, which can lead to type 2 diabetes in some people. What we need to examine further is why some people are more susceptible to developing diabetes than others."
The findings were welcomed by Dr Madiah Al Moussawi, a consultant in nutrition at Dubai's Gulf Speciality Hospital who studied type 2 diabetes for her master's degree. She said conventional thinking was that diet could only reverse the condition in its early stages and would have no effect after a year or more.
"If this guy had diabetes for six years then, wow, it's a huge thing," she said. "It's a really radical change and radical treatment, it's excellent.
"I think I will speak to the team responsible to see if we can do a study or something here, it will be very interesting. We should do it here, If they can do it elsewhere then why not here? It's 100 per cent applicable here."
By Colin Simpson