Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes gave Yvonne Appleby a surprising new lease on life, writes Erica Goatly.
After seven years of feeling constantly under the weather, and gaining 20kg, Yvonne Appleby knew that something was seriously wrong with her health.
“I felt very unwell and kept going to the doctor with ear infections, colds and sore throats, but she said I did not have diabetes and dismissed me as a hypochondriac,” Yvonne says.
It was only when she finally exhibited the classic symptoms of extreme thirst and excessive urination that Yvonne’s worst suspicions were confirmed, and she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at 46 years old.
“I was immediately put on medication and within three days I finally felt normal again,” she says.
From the outset, Yvonne was ready to do whatever it took to manage her condition and regain her health.
“The diagnosis frightened me so much. I knew nothing about diabetes, but once I knew what was wrong with me I just went for it,” she says.
Yvonne’s first step was to purchase a blood glucose monitor so she could stay on top of her blood sugar levels – and then she set out to learn everything she could about living with diabetes. She enrolled in a diabetes education program, which gave her the confidence to tackle her diet and begin to lose weight.
The impact of her health problems and a bitter marriage breakdown had left her on an emotional rollercoaster, and Yvonne recognised that, in order to make lasting changes to her lifestyle, she needed to deal with the stressors that tipped her into a pattern of emotional eating.
“I’d had a bad time and there might have been some comfort eating – my perfect meal would have been McDonald’s,” she admits.
“What I learned was how to make sensible food swaps, like wholegrain bread instead of white sliced. The message was that you didn’t have to go on a special diabetes diet, just make sound food choices.”
Learning to love food
Yvonne learned how to make sense of food labels, and the impact different carbohydrates and sugars have on her on blood sugar levels via the glycaemic index (GI). She started to look out for diabetes-friendly recipes in health magazines and changed not only what she ate but how.
“I developed a really good relationship with food. I learned not to rush, but to pay attention to what I was eating and savour every mouthful. For example, if I’m reading or watching TV, I don’t notice what I’m eating and I still feel hungry, even though I’ve just had food.”
Goodbye gym, no more diets
Ironically, her strong desire to tone up and lose weight almost derailed Yvonne’s healthy habits when she joined a gym and was put on a restrictive eating plan.
“It wasn’t right for me – I felt very much that I was being denied.
“Sure, I lost all the weight and was down from 73kg to 55kg, but I was absolutely craving all the wrong foods like doughnuts and burgers. It was much better for me to find moderation.”
Lesson learned. Yvonne then dumped the gym, enrolled in dance classes and found her passion.
“Being so short [she is 146cm tall] I was never any good at sports, but as soon as I took my first dance steps I knew I loved it and was good at it.”
Dancing up a storm
Soon she was doing 9 to 10 hours of dance per week – rock ‘n’ roll, Latin and ballroom – and not only did the weight fall away, her new-found happiness inspired her to deal with the negatives in her life.
“I was very angry that my diabetes had not been diagnosed earlier, but the dancing has really helped me manage my emotions. Being busy and feeling more settled, I don’t think about food as much anymore.”
Working as a receptionist in a physiotherapy practice has helped as her fitness-savvy workmates support her with lunchtime workouts such as walking, jogging or even boxing.
Off the meds
With her weight and blood glucose levels back in a healthy range, Yvonne was able to stop taking her diabetes medications but remains focused on exercise and healthy eating to stay well.
“I eat three meals a day… and I always balance my carbohydrate intake.”
A whole new world
Yvonne’s new confidence has inspired the 52-year-old to spread the word. She recently gave a talk to more than 300 people about her journey with type 2 diabetes.
“I would never have thought this illness would change my life for the better,” she says. “Diabetes has opened up a whole new world to me and given me opportunities I would otherwise never have had.”
Eight pillars of weight management
As Yvonne found, a sensible, balanced and nutritious eating plan, coupled with regular exercise, can help you lose weight. But the key to keeping it off means finding the tools to underpin these changes with sustainable lifestyle habits that will help you manage any self-destructive triggers.
1. Keep it simple
Try not to bite off more than you can chew. Making small, gradual changes brings you the greatest chance of long-term success.
“Remember that every kilo of weight you lose results in a four-fold reduction in the load exerted on your knees,” say Caroline West, a GP with a focus on lifestyle and behavioural issues around weight management.
“Type 2 diabetes is often – though not always – a weight issue, and so the challenge is not only to lose the weight, but to then keep it off for good,” Dr West says.
2. Write it down
“The more you put a framework around your intentions with a weekly plan, the greater your likelihood of doing them,” Dr West says.
Tara Griffin, a psychologist with a special interest in diabetes and the psychology of weight management, recommends keeping a food diary to track meals and snacks or, perhaps, a reward chart where positive changes are celebrated.
3. Learn to relax
As stress increases blood glucose levels and can often trigger emotional eating, relaxation strategies are an important management tool.
“When we have chronic stress, we tend to eat high-fat, high-kilojoule foods because these counteract the effect of the [stress hormone] cortisol, giving us a high which makes us feel better,” Ms Griffin says.
“Food makes us feel less anxious, which is a driving force for a lot of people who are not even aware they are using it to fight stress. So, introducing mindfulness techniques is really helpful.”
Ms Griffin recommends using apps on your phone, such as The Smiling Mind, Calm and Head Space, and also simple breathing techniques to diffuse tension.
“I like getting people to imagine blowing out the candles on a birthday cake – it’s a nice image to have when someone is having an anxiety attack.”
4. Rate your hunger
Non-hungry eating is often triggered by emotion – by stress, anxiety, being upset, suppressed feelings, boredom, a sense of reward, or just pure habit.
“Identify these triggers and learn to rate your hunger,” Ms Griffin says.
5. Keep it real
Make your changes realistic and they will stick.
“For a habit to become a habit you need to repeat actions until they are something you do on autopilot, like cleaning your teeth,” Dr West says.
Rather than enrolling in a hated 6am boot camp which you quickly abandon, consider a less extreme approach such as using a pedometer to track your steps, and setting yourself progressive goals. Likewise, passing up that biscuit with morning tea is more sustainable than skipping lunch.
6. Manage temptation
Old habits die hard and, while cravings may occasionally surface, having no temptation triggers, such as chocolate, biscuits or chips around the house, will help.
“Keeping your hands busy with a jigsaw, handicrafts, puzzles or even a manicure are also good distractions to keep your mind off food,” Ms Griffin says.
7. Mealtime rituals
Introducing rituals at every mealtime ensures you will not be distracted from what you are eating and you will feel satisfied afterwards, Dr West says.
“Always have food on a plate, sit down and eat at the table, light a candle, serve small portions and savour the look, smell and taste. It’s not about denying yourself food, it’s about improving the relationship you have with it.”
8. Seek support
Taking charge of your weight and health can be a long journey, so seek support along the way. This could be through gathering information, approaching health professionals, online support groups, or the help of caring friends and relatives.