Mar 19, 2024 - Health

Growing market for glucose monitoring fueled by nondiabetics

Illustration of a line graph with blood drops as points.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

One of the fastest-growing trends in health and wellness circles was once seen solely as the domain of diabetics: watching your blood sugar.

Why it matters: The weight-loss drug boom and online health influencers' attention on regulating blood sugar are helping fuel interest in real-time glucose tracking among nondiabetic patients, even as doctors say the benefits are uncertain for this group.

Driving the news: Glucose monitoring tech could become even more widely used by nondiabetics after the Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first over-the-counter device.

  • The device from Dexcom, expected to become available this summer, is meant for people with Type 2 diabetes not taking insulin, as well as nondiabetic patients who want to better understand how diet and exercise may impact blood sugar levels, the FDA said.

The big picture: The devices, which use sensors attached to microneedles or patches to continuously measure glucose levels, are increasingly being marketed to nondiabetics. Costs can vary but typically range between $100-$300 per month, per Forbes.

  • Wellness companies like Nutrisense and Veri sell app-based metabolic health programs using a leading glucose tracker from medical device giant Abbott. Another company, Signos, aims to help customers lose weight through "real-time feedback" using a Dexcom device.
  • Abbott plans to seek FDA approval for a stick-on arm patch
    — already available in the United Kingdom — for people without diabetes to track glucose levels.
  • Abbott CEO Robert Ford has said he wants the company to grow its glucose monitor FreeStyle Libre, which recorded $1.4 billion in sales in 2023, into a $10 billion product in the coming years, per MedTech Dive.

Tech giants like Apple are also looking to add sensors in their wearables that can monitor glucose levels.

  • Some apps like January AI say they can estimate blood sugar levels — without glucose monitors — by pairing meal tracking with AI.
  • The proliferation of tech tools making claims about glucose tracking prompted the FDA to recently remind consumers that no smartwatches or smart rings have been approved for that purpose.

Friction point: Doctors told Axios they have mixed feelings about the devices for nondiabetics.

  • Advocates for the devices' broader use say they can provide feedback on what food may cause glucose levels to spike. Leveraging that information to keep glucose levels stable may improve the body's ability to burn stored fat for energy, which could help lead to weight loss.
  • But those who focus too much on stabilizing their glucose levels as a diabetes prevention measure may inadvertently raise the risk of other health problems if they replace carbohydrates with foods that are high in saturated fat, iron or animal protein, according to a 2023 paper in Practical Diabetes.

"Not everybody needs" a glucose tracker, said Scott Isaacs, an Atlanta-based endocrinologist. "There's the potential for problems that occur where people get worried about normal blood sugars or people get concerned about what are normal changes throughout the day or with meals."

  • While the devices are essential for diabetes patients taking insulin, there's simply less evidence that their benefits outweigh the risks for nondiabetic patients, said Surescripts CEO Frank Harvey.
  • "But, you know, there's some people that are so invested in their health that ... they're trying everything and anything," he said.

Yes, but: Some patients may find value in getting immediate feedback to guide decisions around food and exercise, said endocrinologist Mihail Zilbermint with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians.

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