Every now and then I go on a diet, usually with limited success. However, I’m currently finding that a low-carbohydrate rather than a low-fat diet is proving effective in the run-up to Christmas. Which means I can have bacon and eggs for breakfast. It works for me – maybe it could work for you too.
Now, I am the first to admit I should worry about my health more than I do. Not just because I am perpetually overweight. (Never morbidly obese but always unsatisfyingly podgy.) But also because I am a diabetic.
Diabetes, risk and motivation
I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes nearly nine years ago. My elevated blood glucose levels significantly increase my long-term risk of heart attack, stroke, loss of vision, even amputation. This means a never-ending battle to manage my carbohydrate intake. (Common misconception: diabetes is not about sugar – it’s about carbs, which our bodies convert to glucose for energy.)
Every day, each of us could randomly suffer any of a million things that could kill us prematurely. Having diabetes makes me more vulnerable to serious cardiovascular problems. That’s not to say I’m going to drop dead in the next five years – but the risk of doing so is higher. For a diabetic, life is like a game of Russian roulette with an extra bullet in the gun.
I’ve known this ever since I was diagnosed. So it should be easy to do the sensible thing, right?
Here’s the thing about diabetes: it is a life-long condition. You know how it’s difficult to stick to ‘dry January’ or to a pre-summer holiday diet? Now imagine having to do it for the rest of your life. Not so easy.
And, unlike a traditional weight-loss diet, the impact is less visible. Seeing your flab is one thing. But when the damage is happening at a microscopic level and may not fully manifest for years, it’s harder to stay motivated.
That’s the thing. I’ve always known what I need to do. What I’ve struggled with is the willpower to do it consistently. I’ll have a good week, followed by a bad month. Up and down, back and forth. It’s like being the smoker who just can’t give up even after seeing X-rays of their lungs. Humans are emotional beings; we don’t always act rationally.
Finding my mojo and seeing results
Recently, though, I’ve found my mojo. Nine years later than ideal, sure. But, while I can regret the decisions I’ve made in the past, I can’t change them. What I can control is what I do now.
The kick up the backside I needed came courtesy of one of Heather’s friends, who was recently diagnosed diabetic. She went on a six-week X-PERT course and it had a huge positive effect, so I signed up too.
As a long-standing diabetic, I wasn’t expecting a mass of revelations. All I was hoping for was a few nuggets of information and a little motivation. And that’s exactly what I got. I quickly had a couple of light-bulb moments where I realised there were easy changes I could try that would make a big difference.
So I did it. Six weeks ago, I decided to do four things differently. The results have been dramatic. A normal blood glucose level is 4-7 mmol/l. My average was 12 before; it has now dropped to around six.
As a secondary benefit, I also wanted to shed some weight. I lost five pounds in each of the first two weeks. In the four weeks since I’ve lost a further six – a total of 16 pounds in six weeks. People have noticed the difference, and I’m tightening my belt an additional two notches. Not too shabby.
What changes did I make?
So, the $64,000 question: what am I doing differently? These are the four changes I made – primarily to lower my blood glucose but they work equally well if you want to lose weight.
1. Carbs, not calories
The basis of most diets is counting calories and reducing fat intake. However, as a diabetic, reducing my carbohydrate intake is more important. It even means I can eat slightly more fat to fill me up, as long as it’s not excessive.
I’ve started using the MyFitnessPal app to record everything I eat. It allows me to scan food labels so I can easily tot up carbohydrates, fat and calories. Brilliant.
A normal individual might consume 200-250g of carbs a day – as part of my low-carb approach, I aim for 100-120 at least five days a week. I don’t even look at my fat consumption, as long as my daily calorie count is on track.
If you’re a data-driven person like me, it really helps to see the numbers. And worrying less about fat makes dieting more enjoyable because I can eat foods that traditional low-fat diets tell you to avoid. Hence, bacon and eggs. Yum.
2. No snacks
I’ve always been terrible at this. If I’m hungry between meals, I eat crisps. If someone brings a cake into the office, I’ll have a slice. When we have meetings, I hoover up biscuits.
The one thing all the above have in common is they are high in carbohydrate. I’ve pretty much stopped snacking at all now (other than sampling Toby’s frequent baking efforts) and that has had a huge impact. And now I focus on carbs, I don’t look at a packet of crisps and think “that’s only 150 calories”. Instead I see 15g of unnecessary carbohydrate and I’ll pass.
I really thought I would struggle with this change, that I’d feel constantly hungry. In truth, though, I’ve been surprised at how quickly those mid-afternoon hunger pangs have vanished. I just needed to break my bad habit.
3. Exercise (a bit) more
I’m not particularly fit but I walk quite a lot. I go for a 30-minute walk most lunchtimes. If I’m in London, I get across town on foot rather than by tube. I average 70-80km monthly, which I track using the Runkeeper app.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve upped my effort – not a huge amount, but a little. For November, I’m on target to hit 125km – an extra kilometre here, a kilometre there.
Runkeeper feeds data into MyFitnessPal, so the more calories I burn off, the more I can consume. It’s easier to go out for a 20-minute walk on a cold, wet morning if I can equate that to having a G&T later!
You don’t have to suddenly start running half-marathons or pumping weights. Regular, medium-intensity exercise makes a big difference. Do a little bit more, a bit more regularly.
4. No guilt
Probably my biggest motivator is a purely psychological one.
I make a point of not feeling guilty about treats any more. If we have a night out with friends, I’ll have a few drinks. I’ll eat bacon and eggs – high in fat but, more importantly, zero carbs and fewer calories than you might think. They’re treats, but not guilty ones. I’ve earned them and I can actively look forward to them.
Life’s too short to feel guilty about simple pleasures, and it makes the sacrifices easier. It’s quite a liberating feeling.
The best part of all of this is I can see how this translates into something more sustainable for the long-term. I’ve cut out some of my obvious bad habits and I’m making more conscious and better choices. But I can still have a drink, eat bacon and have the odd takeaway. I’m hardly subsisting on the kind of diet you see the contestants enduring on I’m A Celebrity. (No witchetty grubs here!) Yes, it’s hard work – but not that hard.
So reverting to a more ‘normal’ diet at some point to maintain rather than reduce my blood glucose and weight doesn’t seem that big a jump. And if I can do it – as someone with a life-long history of truly terrible eating habits – anyone can.
Maybe my new approach to my diet really can be for life, not just for Christmas.