Julia Parker, 56, lives in Lincoln, and has one grown-up daughter.
‘It was in my early 50s when I began to feel ill. I’d get jittery and dizzy during the day. After eating I felt like my pulse was racing and I had palpitations. At night I’d wake up sweating and have to change my nightclothes. Sleep deprived, I’d feel exhausted all day.
I went back and forth to the doctors who, like me, thought it was probably the menopause. But I started to feel increasingly unwell.
Eventually I saw a female GP who took me seriously, did blood and urine tests and diagnosed type 2 diabetes.
It was a genuine shock. To learn I had such a serious, potentially life-threatening condition was very frightening. I was given the drug Metformin – which reduces circulating glucose in the blood – and had to take it twice a day. And I was told I needed to address my weight.
At 15st and 5ft 3in I knew I was obese. My job, as an adoption social worker, was stressful and sedentary and I didn’t exercise. I was an emotional eater, relying on convenience foods that were low on nutrition and high in fat.
I can trace the start of my weight problems to many years previously when my first daughter, Hollie Beth, was stillborn at 42 weeks. Six months prior to that I’d lost my father. Food became my comfort.
In 1992 I had my second daughter, Heidi. It was a joyous time, but the trauma of the previous years was always there in the background – emotional eating had become a habit. So the baby weight stayed on. Going back to work full time meant eating on the hop and not looking after myself.
My long-term partner was supportive, reassuring me he loved me whatever weight I was. The thing is, I didn’t love myself and, looking back, my lack of self-esteem was slowly chipping away at the relationship. I’d often eat in secret, unknown to my partner.
If I’d been in denial about my weight the diagnosis was a wake-up call. I was referred to a diabetic nurse and sent on nutrition seminars. All the advice talked about sensible, balanced eating – we all know what that means but it’s hard to put into practice. Although my meals were balanced they were far too large and snacking was my downfall – I loved cheese and peanuts and grazed mindlessly.
My diabetes symptoms had resolved as soon as I started taking Metformin so it would have been easy to forget about it. But I knew there were serious health risks ahead – heart disease, nerve damage, sight problems. The nurse told me I could be on insulin within a decade, which I didn’t want.
The final push came when I was at the theatre with my mum and sister, who are both slim. I bumped into an old friend who looked the three of us up and down and said to me, “Who do you take after?”. I went to the loos and cried, but I came out determined to change. The next day I looked up my nearest WeightWatchers meeting.
That was in January 2014. I was highly incentivised to stick to the plan and at every meeting I began to watch the pounds steadily drop. The support of a group really worked for me – I made friends and getting weighed became something to look forward to rather than dread.
It’s about everything in moderation and the system steers you away from choosing the refined carbohydrates and high-sugar foods that aren’t good for diabetes. Now, on a typical day, I eat porridge or poached eggs on brown bread for breakfast, chicken breast with brown rice and vegetables for lunch, then a small jacket potato with baked beans and salad for dinner. I snack on seeds, cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks and if I fancy pudding, I’ll have fruit with fat-free fromage frais.
Feeling healthier and more energetic really spurred me on. Doctors were bowled over by my weight loss. My glucose levels were coming down. By April last year I’d lost 4st and was told I didn’t need Metformin any more. That was a huge milestone. One doctor was so thrilled he said he wished I could go into his diabetes clinics and motivate his other patients.
It took me 18 months to lose just under 5st. I set smaller goals along the way but my big goal was to get to a healthy weight by 29 July 2015. That would have been my daughter, Hollie Beth’s 25th birthday so it was my tribute to her.
There have been challenges along the way. My daughter Heidi was seriously ill in 2014 and I helped care for her and her new baby Jasper, now two. The old me would have turned to food as a crutch but I knew I needed to stay healthy.
In December 2015, my partner and I split up. We had drifted apart, and getting a handle on my weight and my condition finally gave me the strength and confidence I needed to make a change. That same month, I had my last check up and was told my blood glucose levels were still well within normal levels, despite no longer taking medication. I’d reversed the diabetes. It’s a wonderful world now, I’m living life again and I love not being a statistic.’
WHAT IS TYPE 2 DIABETES?
It’s estimated that one in 16 people in the UK has diabetes (diagnosed or undiagnosed). Of the four million people currently living with the condition, 90 per cent have type 2 diabetes. With this type, the body either can’t produce enough of the hormone insulin, to keep blood glucose levels in check, or it can’t use insulin properly. Symptoms include increased thirst, needing to pee more than usual (especially at night) and feeling tired all the time. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to vision loss or kidney failure, and people with diabetes are five times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
Type 2 diabetes is usually associated with obesity and diagnosed in people over 40 – although it’s increasing in the under 40s and even amongst adolescents and children. Slightly more men than women are affected (56%). Waist measurement is a good indicator of risk – women whose waist measures 80cm (31.5in) or more should take action. You can also take a risk assessment test at riskscore.diabetes.org.uk.
HOW TO REDUCE YOUR RISK OF DIABETES
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Loseweight if you’re overweight – losing 5% of your weight can cut diabetes risk by up to 50%
- Exercise regularly
- Stop smoking
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
THE LATEST RESEARCH
A 2013 study from Newcastle University suggested that a very low-calorie diet – just 600 calories a day – could put newly diagnosed people with type 2 diabetes into remission. Participants were given meal-replacement drinks, under strict medical supervision, for eight weeks. The study was designed to replicate the effects of bariatric surgery, which scientists had already observed put 80 per cent of patients with type 2 diabetes into remission.
‘We’re funding further research into low-calorie eating in a larger cohort of patients, at Newcastle University and hope to know more by 2018,’ says Pav Kalsi, clinical advisor at Diabetes UK. ‘If the study shows that a low-calorie diet could put type 2 diabetes into remission long term, it could completely change the way the condition is treated.’
Until then the charity’s advice for people with type 2 diabetes is to follow a healthy, balanced diet. ‘Trying to stick to 600 calories a day wouldn’t be safe or sustainable,’ she says. ‘Your GP should refer you to a dietician who can help you get to a healthy weight. This will enable your body to use insulin better and bring your blood glucose levels down.’
But Dr David Cavan, Director of Policy and Programmes at the International Diabetes Federation and author of Reverse Your Diabetes Diet, believes it’s possible to replicate the results of the Newcastle study although advocates doing so slowly, over time.
Diabetes Awareness Week takes place from 12 to 18 June and this year the focus is on ‘Setting The Record Straight’: busting the myths and misconceptions around diabetes. Visit diabetes.org.uk