Last month The County Press, our local newspaper, ran an article on me and how I overcame diabetes. Here is a link to download the pdf article.
After I left active military duty in the US Marines I landed a job as a 911 dispatcher in my hometown county. The job is a sedentary one where you sit at a console for 10, 12 or up to 16 hours a day for a shift taking emergency calls and sending the appropriate responders out and later on being promoted to systems administrator, taking care of the 911 center and all of its technology. It's a fulfilling job helping people out that are in need. But it also takes a toll on you physically if you don't do something to mitigate the non-active times.
Like most people I fell victim to sitting around for long periods of time and eating too much junk food. When I graduated Marine Corps boot camp in 1997 I weighed 160 pounds. I left active duty in May of 2001 and by 2006 I weighed 260 pounds. That's 100 pounds of added weight over a decade I had put on. I was 28 years old at that time and when I had to renew my driver's license that year they took an updated photo of me. When I saw it I was totally disgusted with myself for going from a trim and fit Marine to what I had become.
I decided at the time to start dieting and eat only healthy foods and reduce caloric intake. I didn't follow any particular plan or fad diets and just made up my own as I went along. I basically ate a lot of vegetables and some cereals and drank water or iced-tea. As I recall I restricted my calories to between 700 and 1200 calories a day. After about 9 or 10 months I had lost 91 pounds and weighed 169 pounds.
While I had lost a lot of weight, I still didn't look good. During that time I had done absolutely zero exercise. So while I lost a lot of body fat, not all of it, but I also lost a lot of muscle mass as well. Someone remarked that I "looked like an AIDS patient" because I was so gaunt looking.
That kind of highly restricted diet of very low calories, especially for a 6 foot tall man wasn't healthy nor sustainable in the long term. I then slowly began eating a bit more again and eventually slipped back into eating too much and too much junk food and put on some weight but not nearly as much as I had before.
Then I joined a gym at the behest of a friend and we became workout partners. I was renting part of a house from his aunt and uncle and he ended up moving into one of the other apartments in the house downstairs so we ended up living under the same roof as well. After work we'd meet up at the gym and workout. Then we started eating very healthy and finding creative ways to have some variety and good tasting food too. This worked out well for a long time and I started to get into decent shape.
As time went on my friend had moved out and back to college and I fell off the exercise wagon because I lacked enough motivation to continue on my own. Over the course of a few more years I put on more weight and ended up around 220 pounds. By this time I had moved into the city much closer to work and the gym but I wasn't going to the gym.
My diet had gotten really bad and I was consuming a lot of soda pop and other sugary foods. I had developed a sinus infection and had to go see my doctor because of it. At the time I was getting suspicious of my health and started having some of the common symptoms like extreme thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision and neuropathy of the feet. While I was at the doctor's office I asked the nurse to check me for diabetes. She took a blood sugar reading and said "oh my" and quickly walked out of the room around the corner where the doctor was sitting. The next thing I heard was him shout "What?!" My reading was well above 500mg/dl where normal is considered to be below 100mg/dl. He immediately put me on medication and told me to lose weight and eat right. I knew I had to do it without him telling me so, I mean don't we all already know what we have to do?
For the first year or two I didn't take the diagnosis too seriously and only made very minor changes to my diet which did not have much of a positive effect on my sugar levels. I was still above 200 on every check of my sugar.
In 2015 I finally decided to start regarding my diabetes seriously and cut out all the junk from my diet and I re-joined the gym. The knowledge I gained over the years about exercise and proper diet would be brought back into play and in a years time I lost 45 pounds and with the guidance of my doctor I eventually was able to come off of diabetes medication altogether. My hbA1C which is long term sugar readings are now at levels that are consistent with someone who does not, nor ever had diabetes. My last reading was 5.4%, compare that to when I was first diagnosed where it was over 10%.
My VA doctor was so happy and proud of my accomplishment to come off of medication like this because she said that most people never achieve what I have. Well I think that's because most people are unwilling to do what is necessary to beat back the disease that they, like me, gave to themselves. A proper diet and exercise combined with a lasting discipline is what it takes. I don't say that its easy, because it isn't. Keeping your diet in check is the hardest part; much harder than getting to the gym and lifting weights.
I'll always be a diabetic for the rest of my life due to the damage I've done to my pancreas over the years, but as long as I continue to eat right and exercise like I am right now, I will be a 'diet-controlled' diabetic.
The key to losing weight is no secret and people ask me all the time how I did it. Put most simply, burn more calories than you consume and you'll lose weight. It's how I dropped 91 pounds in less than a year's time. But there is more to it if you want to do it the healthy way.
First one has to keep in mind that you didn't get heavy overnight and therefore you won't lose all the excess weight overnight either. It takes time.
One of the things fitness and medical experts will tell you is to drink more water and exercise. The exercise can be anything that gets your heart rate up, be it cardio like jogging, walking or running to anaerobic exercise like lifting weights. The reason for this is because there are two ways the body loses weight, 1) through the breath and 2) through urine. A common myth on how we actually lose that body fat is that you poop it out or sweat it out. That's not true. When your body burns fat (or muscle - catabolic state) through the process of biosynthesis it converts that fat into energy and the by-product of that conversion is CO2 - carbon dioxide. The body eliminates CO2 when you exhale and when you urinate.
When you're told to get your heart rate up, pumping faster and working up a sweat, you're also breathing harder and expending energy and thus increasing the amount of CO2 you're eliminating from the body which is the fat. The same goes for drinking more water since CO2 is dumped into the bladder and washed away by water when you go to the bathroom.
So if your goal is to lose weight you need to exercise a little as well as eat properly and that means getting your heart rate up and breathing heavier for a period of time.
If you decide to lift weights as a form of exercise it can help speed up the process as you build muscle mass. The increased muscle requires more energy to build and maintain and thus helps you burn more calories and excess body fat. Plus you'll look a lot better in the mirror or on the beach too.
Another thing I did this time was to purchase a fitness tracker. I bought a Fitbit Charge HR and then later a Fitbit Surge. These help track calories burned, steps taken, floors climbed, track workouts, runs, bicycle rides and measure your heart rate. You sync it with your smartphone or computer and get a great display of all your results. The fitness tracker really helps me keep my goals in mind and at the forefront of everything I'm doing. With the smartphone app and the website you can also track all your food intake and see breakdowns of the nutrients and calorie counts. This is extremely helpful in planning your meals out and staying on track to meet your daily food goals. I strongly recommend investing in one whether it be a Fitbit, an Apple Watch or other tracker. It's just one more tool you can use to help you on your fitness journey.
I discovered an interesting thing about my body and sugar after effectively being "off of sugar" for the past 2 years. Sugar is a lot like some drugs in that your body builds up a tolerance to it and over time you need more of it to get the same effect, feeling or rush that you did the first time you had any of it.
Since I adjusted my daily diet to be healthy and free from as much sugar as I could I am averaging around 50 grams of sugar per day consumed and that is for the whole day! That's about as much sugar as is found in a 20oz bottle of Mountain Dew, of which I used to drink several per day, then factor in all the junk food and sugar-laden food I was eating and it was no wonder I gave myself diabetes.
The interesting thing I found was that one day not too long ago I checked my sugar and I was at a low 57mg/dl and 60 is typically the lowest you want to get to before you start having low blood sugar problems. I felt just fine and had no adverse effects at that reading, but I thought I should eat something to raise it up a little. I haven't had any candy in a long time and I thought why not now? There is a candy box outside my office door and I bought a pack of Rolo's. I didn't bother to look at the label to see how much sugar was in it. I ate the candy and after a few minutes I physically felt the rush of sugar throughout my body and even a tingling in my eyeballs! I looked at the wrapper and saw that the little package had 30 grams of sugar in it! That was almost as much sugar as I consume in a whole day now and I consumed it in a matter of minutes. Plus that first Rolo I had was so super sweet too. I wasn't used to milk chocolate anymore and it didn't taste nearly as good as it once did.
I used to hate dark chocolate because it was too bitter, i.e. not sweet enough. But now, I buy 90% coca dark chocolate to have with my espresso once in a while. A single serving of that, 4 squares, contains a mere 3 grams of sugar. That is totally acceptable to eat for me and with such a minimal amount of sugar in it, it tastes great and tastes just sweet enough to enjoy. I don't seem to enjoy milk chocolate anymore and especially with the ultra high sugar content of candies I don't want to like them anymore since it is a determinant to my health now.
As the newspaper article title suggests, and quotes me, 'your doctor can't do it for you,' it is solely up to you to take control of your diabetes and weight. Your doctor can only make recommendations, encourage you and give you medications. Medications can only do so much to help mitigate the problem and oftentimes lead to adverse side effects as well. Only you can control your exercise levels and what you eat and both are the keys to success.
Lastly, I have extra incentive to maintain a healthy diet and weight and that is I am and forever will be a diabetic. That means if I stray back into my bad habits I'll have blood sugar problems again and worse yet I could lose toes, feet, legs to amputation even go blind or even die. I'm going to die someday, but I don't want it to be because I failed to control my diabetes, and until then I want to retain my vision and keep all my body parts in tact.
Download the pdf version with pictures here.