Flip the metabolic switch: how it can help type 2 diabetes

Doctor turned documentary maker Dr Michael Mosley explains how changing your diet and flipping your metabolic switch can help stave off type 2 diabetes.

He popularised the 5:2 diet, created the lifestyle program The Fast 800 and recently encouraged a group of type 2 diabetes sufferers to get healthier in the SBS series, Australia’s Health Revolution.

So what can British broadcaster Dr Michael Mosley tell us about the concept of flipping the metabolic switch – which he says can help reverse the condition – ahead of World Diabetes Day on November 14?

What does flipping the metabolic switch mean?

“We’re a bit like a hybrid car, we are designed to run on two fuel systems – that’s sugar and fat,” Dr Mosley says.

While we can use protein as a source of energy, our go-to fuel is mainly sugar, he says.

“Flipping the metabolic switch is basically when you run down your sugar supplies, and your body is forced to increasingly rely on your fat stores,” he says.

“You move from primarily burning sugar to primarily burning fat.”

How flipping the metabolic switch can help with type 2 diabetes

Almost 1 million Australian adults – or 5.3 per cent of the population aged 18 and over – had type 2 diabetes in 2017-2018.

Excess weight is one of the biggest risk factors for the genetic condition, and flipping the switch is effective in shedding the kilograms, Dr Mosley says.

“There’s quite a lot of benefits to flipping the metabolic switch, including obviously you go into fat-burning mode, and therefore you lose some of that visceral (gut) fat, which is clogging up your pancreas and your liver.”

He says the process can also reduce blood pressure and chronic inflammation, and keep brain cells in good shape.

When combined with animal studies, a 2017 study on flipping the metabolic switch found strong evidence intermittent fasting can be effective in preventing type 2 diabetes.

Dr Mosley’s experience flipping the metabolic switch

In 2012, Dr Mosley, then aged 55, visited his GP to check out a mole, but was surprised when blood tests revealed he was in the type 2 diabetes range.

While he wasn’t hugely overweight, Dr Mosley says looking back on it, his “spare tyre” and the fact he was snoring loudly were warning signs.

With his father having died of type 2 diabetes complications at the age of 74, Dr Mosley took swift action, losing about 9kg through intermittent fasting and cutting carbs.

What to eat to flip the metabolic switch

Dr Mosley says it’s all about avoiding easily digestible carbs, such as pasta, bread and potatoes, which lead to sugar spikes.

If you’re going to eat rice, he recommends opting for brown rice, in small amounts. Same goes for bread.

“Wholemeal bread is better but again not terrific,” Dr Mosley says.

“If you can cut back on bread at least for a while, I would recommend that.”

The best type of carbs, he says, are legumes such as lima beans, kidney beans or lentils.

“They come with a lot of fibre and they’re slow release,” he says.

Eat vegetables over fruit helps flip the metabolic switch

Dr Mosley says when people think of fibre, they often think of fruit.

However, he says it’s better to stock up on green starchy vegies such as spinach or broccoli.

Or go for berries over melon and bananas, which are high in natural sugars.
“It’s also a good idea to eat decent amounts of protein – that would be things like oily fish and meat, and if you’re vegetarian perhaps things like tofu or tempeh,” he says.

And go easy, or ditch, the grog if you’re trying to lose weight fast.

How lifestyle changes can help flip the metabolic switch

Australian Diabetes Society chief executive Associate Professor Sof Andrikopoulos says there are 1.2 million Australians living with type 2 diabetes, but not all are overweight or obese.

However, for those carrying extra weight, he recommends lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise.

“You can do a lot to improve your metabolic status by eating unprocessed foods, by eating less sugars, by eating more healthy,” Prof Andrikopoulos says.

“We should all do that regardless.”

Can anyone put type 2 diabetes into remission?

Prof Andrikopoulos says type 2 diabetes is caused by a genetic defect in cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

“So as a genetic disease you cannot reverse it,” he says.

However, some people – such as those with pre-diabetes or those who’ve had type 2 diabetes for a relatively short period – can put it into remission by lowering their blood glucose levels, he says.

Written by Larissa Ham.