For instance, we want you to know that it’s very important to adapt diabetes medications when starting a low carb diet. In particular, insulin doses may need to be lowered to avoid low blood sugar, and SGLT2 inhibitors may need to be deprescribed (see below).
However, we also want you to discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor before making any changes. Full disclaimer
So you have diabetes and want to try eating low carb or keto? Good for you! Making these dietary changes has the potential to reverse type 2 diabetes. Or, if you have type 1 diabetes, doing so could dramatically improve your blood sugar control.
However, you need to know what you are doing, and you need to communicate frequently with your healthcare team. Once you start eating low carb you will likely have to lower your insulin doses as well as some other diabetes medications, frequently by quite a lot.
Avoiding the carbohydrates that raise your blood sugar level decreases your need for medication to lower it. Taking the same dose of insulin or insulin-stimulating oral medication as you did prior to adopting a low-carb diet might result in low blood sugar, something that can potentially become dangerous.
You need to test your blood sugar frequently when starting this diet and adjust your medication accordingly. This should always be done with the assistance of a physician or other health professional with expertise in diabetes (find a low-carb doctor).
Insulin-treated type 2 diabetes
As a general guide you will need to lower your doses when starting a strict low-carb diet.
Work with your doctor to find the right initial reduction. Many find that the reduction may need to be between 30 and 50%. If you take insulin once or twice daily, consider reducing both doses by the same proportion. If you are on a basal bolus regimen (taking fast-acting insulin before meals, and long-acting insulin once or twice a day), your mealtime doses should be reduced first.
If you remain low carb, it is possible you will be able to stop mealtime insulin altogether. You can then begin to reduce your long-acting insulin, if your blood sugar levels remain stable. Many people on a low carb diet are able to come off insulin completely.
Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing how much insulin is required in advance. You will have to test your blood sugar frequently and lower insulin doses based on your blood sugar readings. This should be done with the assistance of a knowledgeable physician or healthcare team.
Note that as a general rule, many feel it is better to err on the low side of insulin doses. If your blood sugar goes a bit high you can take more insulin later to help bring it down. That’s OK. If instead you take too much insulin and end up having low sugar, that is potentially far more dangerous.
You’ll also have to quickly eat or drink glucose or another form of rapid-acting carbohydrate in order to raise your sugar to a safe level, and that likely reduces the effect of the low-carb diet.
Insulin in type 1 diabetes
Much of the above advice on insulin also applies to people with type 1 diabetes. A low-carb, high-fat diet can be fantastic for empowering people with type 1 diabetes to get steady blood sugars. It often results in much fewer and milder highs or hypos, as long as insulin doses are reduced appropriately.
However, eating low-carb with type 1 diabetes requires even greater attention to blood sugar levels and insulin adjustment, and an even closer working relationship between you and your healthcare team. This section will review general guidelines to help you discuss potential changes with your doctor.
Many people with type 1 diabetes use an insulin to carbohydrate ratio (ICR) for their mealtime insulin. In this case, with a low carb diet you may continue to give the same ratio of insulin to the carbohydrates you eat. But, as you eat less carbohydrate, you will automatically inject less overall insulin.
In some cases, a higher ICR may be required due to the effect of protein increasing insulin requirements. In other cases, a lower ICR may be required. Some people will lose weight with a low carb diet and become more insulin sensitive. If this occurs, it will be necessary to reduce the insulin to carbohydrate ratio, and possibly also the basal insulin doses.
People who use relatively fixed mealtime doses of insulin, or those on twice daily insulin, should use the same approach as those with type 2 diabetes. The difference is of course that people with type 1 diabetes will always need some insulin, even on a very low carbohydrate diet.
It is important to be aware that a diet with less than 50 grams of carbs each day can lead to ketosis. This is a normal physiological state that results from the body burning fat for energy.
A very strict low-carb diet can result in relatively high, but still physiological (in other words, safe), ketone levels (e.g. between 0.5 and 3.0 mmol/L, but sometimes as high as 4 or 5mmol/L). This should not be confused with ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous complication of type 1 diabetes when there is insufficient insulin.
Ketosis is a normal response to using fat for energy. It is fine for healthy people, but in type 1 diabetes this means that you need to be sure you can differentiate ketosis from the much more dangerous ketoacidosis. The latter is associated with high blood sugar levels and dehydration, as well as high ketones.
We therefore recommend that when starting a low carb diet, a person with type 1 diabetes starts with a more liberal low-carb diet, with at least 50 grams of carbs a day. If you wish, you can then begin to reduce your carb intake to 30-40 grams of carbs per day while working closely with your healthcare team and carefully monitoring your ketone levels.
We do not recommend starting a ketogenic low-carb diet (below 20 grams a day) unless you’re certain of how to handle this risk and are working closely with a very experienced healthcare practitioner. You also have to be able to test your ketones often, and use extra care if you feel even slightly ill, practice intermittent fasting or have been exercising.
It’s also important to remember that while people with type 2 diabetes can often reverse their disease enough to stop taking insulin injections entirely, someone with type 1 diabetes will always need to replace the insulin they lack.
With that said, a low-carb diet can have fantastic results for people with type 1 diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes – how to control your blood sugar with fewer carbs