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Diet and exercise in the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus


Evidence from observational studies and randomized trials suggests that prediabetes and type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) can develop in genetically susceptible individuals in parallel with weight (that is, fat) gain. Accordingly, studies show that weight loss can produce remission of T2DM in a dose-dependent manner. A weight loss of ~15 kg, achieved by calorie restriction as part of an intensive management programme, can lead to remission of T2DM in ~80% of patients with obesity and T2DM. However, long-term weight loss maintenance is challenging. Obesity and T2DM are associated with diminished glucose uptake in the brain that impairs the satiating effect of dietary carbohydrate; therefore, carbohydrate restriction might help maintain weight loss and maximize metabolic benefits. Likewise, increases in physical activity and fitness are an important contributor to T2DM remission when combined with calorie restriction and weight loss. Preliminary studies suggest that a precision dietary management approach that uses pretreatment glycaemic status to stratify patients can help optimize dietary recommendations with respect to carbohydrate, fat and dietary fibre. This approach might lead to improved weight loss maintenance and glycaemic control. Future research should focus on better understanding the individual response to dietary treatment and translating these findings into clinical practice.

Key points

  • Studies show that weight loss can produce remission of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) in a dose-dependent manner.

  • In patients with T2DM and obesity, weight loss of ~15 kg, achieved by an intensive management programme involving calorie restriction, can lead to remission of T2DM in ~80% of individuals.

  • Long-term maintenance of weight loss and metabolic health in people who have undergone intensive lifestyle intervention is challenging.

  • Carbohydrate restriction might help maintain weight loss and maximize metabolic benefits.

  • When combined with calorie restriction and weight loss, increases in physical activity and fitness are an important contributor to T2DM remission.

  • Preliminary work suggests that pretreatment glycaemic status could be used to stratify patients in order to optimize dietary recommendations.

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Fig. 1: Weight gain and risk of T2DM.
Fig. 2: Natural history of prediabetes and T2DM.
Fig. 3: Weight loss and remission of T2DM.
Fig. 4: Long-term changes induced by intensive lifestyle intervention in patients with T2DM.
Fig. 5: Differences in diet-induced changes in body weight according to baseline fasting plasma glucose concentrations.


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Correspondence to Arne Astrup.

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M.F.H. and A.A. are co-inventors on a pending provisional patent application on the use of biomarkers for prediction of weight loss responses and co-founders/owners of the University of Copenhagen spin-out company Personalized Weight Management Research Consortium ApS ( A.A. is a consultant or advisory board member for Basic Research, USA, Beachbody, USA, BioCare Copenhagen, Denmark, Gelesis, USA, Groupe Éthique et Santé, France, McCain Foods Limited, USA, Nestlé Research Center, Switzerland, and Weight Watchers, USA. A.A. and M.F.H. are co-authors of a number of diet/cookery books, including personalized nutrition for weight loss, published in several languages. F.M. declares no competing interests.

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Nature Reviews Endocrinology thanks P. Clifton, R. Taylor and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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An intermediate condition between normoglycaemia and type 2 diabetes mellitus, characterized by moderately elevated fasting or postprandial blood glucose or HbA1c.

Glycaemic index

A relative ranking of foods according to their ability to increase blood glucose levels relative to a reference food (glucose or white bread) for the same amount of bioavailable carbohydrate.

Glycaemic load

An extension of the glycaemic index that takes into account the actual amount of available carbohydrate present in one serving of a food or in the whole diet.

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Magkos, F., Hjorth, M.F. & Astrup, A. Diet and exercise in the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nat Rev Endocrinol 16, 545–555 (2020).

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