Food is just food

In my last post, I said that I was no longer dieting, but what does that really mean?

First, let’s look at the definition of diet (as found in the Oxford English Dictionary): “A special course of food to which a person restricts (emphasis added) themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons”. So, by this definition, whether you’re eating Paleo (no grains, beans, soy, dairy, added sugar, or certain vegetable oils), Whole30 (dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, added sugar or artificial sweeteners), Keto (no sugar of any kind [including fruits and dairy], no root vegetables [such as potato, pumpkin], and no grains [including grain derived foods such as bread and flour]), or Weight Watchers (no more than a certain number of Smart Points [that number is derived by using customers’ resting metabolic rate to determine how many calories they need in order to lose a couple of pounds a week]), you are, by definition, dieting.

I was really good at dieting for a long time, although I hadn’t followed a specific plan since I tried Weight Watchers for the first time back in college. From January 2013 to March 2017, my self-conceived “plan” looked something like this: no bread or baked goods of any kind, no white starches (rice, pasta, potatoes), minimal whole grains (quinoa and brown rice), only nonfat dairy products, and tracking every morsel of anything with calories in an online food diary. I obsessed over not just the number of calories I was ingesting but also how many grams of carbohydrates and sugar, sometimes taking 10-15 minutes to choose which meal option to choose as I compared calories and macronutrients. I lost a significant amount of weight by living this way, but I also developed really disordered eating habits including wild swings between strict adherence to my “plan” and carb-laden binges when I was under stress or tired or not feeling well; it was definitely all or nothing for me.

By some miracle, I managed to keep off most of the weight I’d lost for 2-1/2 years by doing the same things I’d done to lose it: restricting and obsessively tracking my food. And then I was injured in an accident that left me unable to run for a month, followed closely by a major shakeup at work, and all bets were off. Not only did I feel horrible physically but I was under more stress than I had been for many years; I turned to food for comfort and release. No tracking, no restriction, just eating lots of floury, sugary carbohydrates in large quantities (and usually in secret).

It was something my physical therapist said to me that finally made me want to change. She said, “You are so lucky that you weren’t hurt more badly than you were, Denise – your body is really strong.”

Strong? My body? My stubborn body that wouldn’t get thin enough no matter how strictly I counted calories? My undisciplined body that craved sweet baked goods and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches even though those were “bad” foods? Was she serious?!? What the heck?!?!

And then I started thinking about it and I realized how right she was.

My poor body put up with my crazy food restrictions while I trained for three half marathons. It never complained and in fact, it got stronger and faster even as I slowly gained a few pounds with each race, increasing my hatred for it and my determination to “get this thing under control” so that I could finally be thin and happy. “This thing”, of course, was my own body, but I was so disconnected from it that I saw it as something separate, something not to be trusted and certainly not to be appreciated.

A few days after that conversation, I decided that I wanted to find sanity in my eating and my relationship with my body, so I started working with a coach. One of the first things Summer told me was that “food is just food”, and that just blew my mind with its simplicity. How many years did I spend obsessing over, restricting, and vilifying food, when the truth is that food is fuel for my body, nothing more, nothing less. In my unceasing quest to shrink my body into a more acceptable size, I’d rarely considered what my body actually needed to be happy and healthy, only how to make my food intake fit into my “plan”.

So there I was, a whole clothing size larger than I’d been just five weeks ago, before the accident, with a choice to make: I could go back to my diet/restrict/binge eating pattern, or I could try eating what my body actually wanted when it wanted it and in the quantity that it wanted. With a huge amount of fear, I stepped off the diet bandwagon and into a whole new world of eating.

For a little while, I was like a small child let loose in FAO Schwarz, eating everything I’d previously denied myself, including a scone every morning with my latte. Predictably, my body size increased. I had multiple panic attacks about my new “no rules” eating and started planning for a new diet several times before I remembered that restriction and obsessing had gotten me to this place of insanity in the first place, so – with support from Summer – I stayed the course.

Eventually, probably 6-8 weeks into my new way of eating, the insatiable need for sweet baked goods waned and was replaced by eating things that I knew made my body feel good and function well. I started to pay attention while I ate, too, so that I could feel when my body had enough food and stop eating. The first time I ordered a two taco combination with a side of black beans and could only finish one taco before I felt full, you could have knocked me over with a feather. This was a meal I’d eaten hundreds of times during my dieting days – it had fewer than 600 calories even with the black beans, for goodness sakes, but, of course, I’d never been paying attention to how my body felt before, so how could I have known?

It’s been 2-1/2 months since I stopped dieting and started listening to my body. I’m up another size in clothing (that would be the extended period of no-holds-barred baked goods eating) and I’ve never felt this sane, this normal, this happy about my relationship with food and my body. I haven’t weighed myself since before the accident and I don’t intend to ever again because my body feels happy and strong, my blood sugar is well controlled, and I don’t hate my body anymore.

Damn, this feels good.

What I believe now: no more diets

If this is your first time reading here, welcome, and let me give you the “Reader’s Digest Condensed” version of my life until now:

  • I spent most of my adult life considerably larger than the average American woman, and probably double the size of the average woman living in southern California, where I’ve lived since 1978
  • I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1996, although I’d been experiencing symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated diabetes for at least 18 months prior to that
  • Three times in the last 20 years, I have lost a significant amount of weight, only to gain it all back and more
  • In late 2012, while taking at least 8 prescribed medications to (unsuccessfully) treat my high blood sugar and triglycerides, I asked my endocrinologist (diabetes doctor) to put me on insulin because nothing else was working and I was terrified that I would develop complications of uncontrolled diabetes
  • When my “last ditch” addition of insulin to my daily routine did absolutely nothing to lower my blood sugar levels, I was devastated, leading me to a place of despair so deep that I wrote about it on New Year’s Day and vowed to make a good faith effort to improve my health and happiness for the rest of 2013
  • Eighteen months from that blog post, I saw the smallest number in my adult life on the scale – it was less than one pound from being in the “Normal” range on the BMI scale; I stayed there exactly one week before regaining about 10% of the weight I’d lost. My blood sugar and triglycerides, however, stayed right on target and were even below what’s considered “desirable” for someone with diabetes
  • For the next two years and nine months, I pretty easily maintained within 10 pounds of that slightly-higher than “Normal” place. I completed three half marathons, two duathlons, and numerous shorter races in that time, too
  • While I was in the middle of my final long run – a 10 miler – for a fourth half marathon in March this year, I was hit from behind by a bicyclist that the emergency response personnel estimated had been going between 30 and 35 miles per hour. A fractured ankle and C7 vertebrae left me with strict instructions not to run for at least four weeks, terrible headaches, and intermittent vertigo; so much for the half marathon I’d spent nearly three months training for
  • A couple of weeks after the accident, there was a major reorganization of my team at work; I began eating large amounts of sugary, flour-laden foods to cope with my stress and anxiety about work and my injuries
  • By the time I left for vacation in New Orleans, a month after the accident, I was unable to wear any of my clothes and had to buy things a size larger in order to pack for the trip; I was so ashamed

About this time, I found a podcast with a host that I absolutely adored. She was bold and brassy and she talked about this crazy idea that diets don’t work and that you can live a happy life at any weight. I found myself moving from outright incredulity to grudging acknowledgement that she might not be completely wrong to wondering if it might be possible for me to be happy and healthy without trying to shrink my body; no more diets for me.

I started working with Summer in April and it’s been a crazy journey. I struggled with rebound binge eating for a little while but eventually the endless stream of sugary baked goods (and resulting stomach aches and lethargy) lost their allure and I settled into a comfortable way of eating that makes my body feel good and my morning runs a little easier. My blood sugar hasn’t changed appreciably from when I was smaller, nor has my blood pressure or resting heart rate. I started running regularly again and am training for a half marathon this October (in London).

I have no food rules, I haven’t weighed myself in months, and I eat what my body wants when it’s hungry and stop eating when I’m no longer hungry. I still struggle with occasional panicky moments of “oh my gosh, my body is too big – what will people think?” but then I remember that even when everyone around me was complimenting me on my smaller body three years ago I absolutely hated it and wanted nothing more than to lose more weight so that I could be “thin enough” to be happy.

Happy, Healthy Me

I am simultaneously larger than I’ve been since some time in early 2014 and also happier than at any time I can remember. I know this will not sit well with some readers but it’s my truth and I want to share it.

Gum disease and Type 2 diabetes

February is Gum Disease Awareness Month. I want to share with you the importance of taking excellent care of your teeth and gums, especially if you have Type 2 diabetes; this is a very personal issue for me.

I have always had beautiful, strong teeth, partly due to my twice-daily brushing routine and partly due to good genetics. During my college years, I stopped going to the dentist regularly because it was a pain to schedule the appointments and because I never found a practitioner that I liked.

I was a good brusher, so I didn’t worry about not keeping up my dental visits until one day, quite suddenly (or so it seemed), my gums were bleeding and my front tooth was a little wobbly. I still tried to ignore it and hope it would go away, but, much like the Type 2 diabetes I was also ignoring at the time, nothing good comes of burying your head in the sand about gum disease (also known as gingivitis or periodontitis).

Once I’d started dealing with my diabetes and had a better handle on my blood sugar, I decided to deal with the problems with my teeth, so I made an appointment with a local dentist and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, having ignored the early warning signs of periodontitis, I found out that I needed to have 15 of my still-perfect, still-strong teeth removed because the tissue and bone that should have been supporting them had been eaten away by years of untreated infection. If I’d visited a dentist at the first symptoms, I’d probably have saved most, if not all of my teeth; I want you to learn from my mistake.

What are some of the risk factors for developing gum disease?
  • Not following a good dental hygiene regimen, to include brushing twice daily, flossing once each day, and visiting a dentist at least once a year (more frequently if you have any of the risk factors listed below)
  • Family history of gum disease (turns out both of my grandmothers plus my mother all have it although no one ever told me about it)
  • A medical condition that weakens your immune system, like diabetes, HIV/AIDS, or cancer
  • Eating a diet high in processed, sugary foods, which promote the growth of the plaque bacteria that cause gum disease

Some of these are clearly beyond our control – you can’t choose your family – but brushing, flossing, and seeing a dentist are things you can fix right now, and eliminating or limiting processed foods will benefit your health far beyond your gums.

Symptoms of gum disease

So what should you watch for, if you have any of the risk factors?

Normal gum tissue is pink, firm, and stretches around your teeth smoothly without any bleeding when you brush and floss.

In people with gingivitis, gums become red, swollen, and tender. They have a tendency to bleed, too. This should send you straight to your dentist for a chat because things are still very treatable at this point.

Once things progress to full-blown periodontitis (which is what I had), gums will pull away from teeth, your teeth may become loose, and you might experience bad breath and oozing pus. If you are at this point and feel overwhelmed, know that I’ve been in your shoes; you will be OK but time is of the essence. Make an appointment with a dentist or periodontist (if your insurance will allow that) immediately so that you can get things cleaned up and be back on a healthy path.

If the thought of losing your teeth isn’t enough to motivate you to action (and it wasn’t for me, so I’m preaching from experience here) then you need to know that gum disease has been linked to some even scarier health problems, like heart disease, dementia, and rheumatoid arthritis. Scientists haven’t pinned down the precise link but it’s probably related to the inflammatory effect of the uncontrolled bacteria in your mouth. (Inflammation is coming up a lot in the literature I read about many different health conditions.)

Bottom line is that gum disease is highly treatable when caught early and can impact your overall health in less-than-desirable ways if you ignore it, so make an appointment with a dental health professional if you have any of the symptoms.

Setting diabetes management goals

It’s January so perhaps you have been thinking about what you’d like to change in 2016. Now is a perfect time to think about setting diabetes management goals – here are my best tips for how to set yourself up for success in the next 338 days and beyond.

setting diabetes management goals will help you cross the finish line
International Canoe Classic Finish Line by City of Minneapolis Archives, on Flickr
Goal setting best practices
  • Give yourself some time to think about not just what you want to achieve, but also why. When the going gets rough and your initial enthusiasm wanes, remembering why you chose this goal can help keep you focused and motivated. A great suggestion from a trusted coach last year was to write down my list of “whys”, snap a photo, and turn it into the screensaver for my mobile phone so that I always have it in front of me; this works well for me.
  • Break large, lofty goals into smaller, measurable to-do items. Three years ago when I started on a journey to improve my blood sugar readings, I wanted to be able to complete the recommended 60 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise on five days a week, but I could barely walk 15 minutes at a very slow pace, so I set my first action item to walk for 15 minutes one day a week. I also wanted to eat smaller amounts of food at each meal and eliminate my binge eating, but that prospect was overwhelming so I decided to focus on adding more fruits and vegetables to my existing way of eating. In both of these cases, I knew I needed to do more eventually but doing something small and measurable that would lay the groundwork for more ambitious goals later on was what worked for me.
  • Track your action items each day and evaluate how you are doing at regular intervals. You can check in on your progress on your own if that works well for you, or you may consider finding someone you trust to check in with, for additional accountability.
  • Adjust your action items as needed to continue growing stronger, healthier, and happier. If walking twice a week is one of your commitments and you find that you are easily accomplishing that then perhaps it’s time to add a third day or a few extra minutes to the existing days of walking. For eating changes, it took a few weeks for me to be ready to start tracking everything I ate so that I could evaluate whether (and where) I wanted to reduce calories.
  • If you’re not sure where to start with setting diabetes management goals, seek professional help. I have a wonderful endocrinologist (diabetes doctor), a registered dietician (for meal planning ideas), a physical therapist (for strength training and flexibility regimens), and a psychotherapist (for emotional support when it all feels overwhelming) on my diabetes management team. If you don’t like visiting any of the professionals who are supposed to help you manage your diabetes then ask around for referrals to alternative providers – you are paying them to help, you are their customer, and they should put your needs first instead of offering generic ideas about how best to manage your life.
  • Remember that anything that takes you in the direction of achieving your long-term goals is progress and should be celebrated. Find something that you love – preferably not food – to use as a reward for sticking with your action items. I rewarded myself with a facial after the first month of eating differently and exercising more. In the intervening months, I have gifted myself massages, pedicures, new running shoes, a cashmere sweater, and perfume as rewards for continuing to make positive changes. Choose something that you know you’ll enjoy, find a picture of it that you can place somewhere prominent in your environment to remind you about what’s waiting for you.

Finally, be gentle with yourself as you start making changes – this isn’t a race and you won’t always be perfect, so settle in and enjoy the journey.

Knowledge is Power: Eye Exams for Diabetics

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The professional support team needed for a person dealing with a chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes is large. My team includes a primary care physician, an endocrinologist (diabetes doctor), a psychologist, a dentist, a periodontist, and an optometrist. It can feel overwhelming sometimes when I think about all of the visits to these various professionals that are required to ensure that I avoid diabetic complications, if possible, or uncover complications early enough so that they are treatable.

One of the least difficult appointments on my yearly rounds is with my optometrist. Eye exams for diabetics are needed yearly or possibly more frequently if retinopathy is detected by an initial exam. Diabetic retinopathy can be well managed if caught early but sadly many diabetics either do not have access to optometric care or do not know the importance of yearly eye exams for diabetics.

What should you expect at the doctor’s office? Eye exams for diabetics are much the same as for the rest of the population, and should consist of:

  • Glaucoma testing – my doctor uses the “puff of air” test but some doctors use something called a tonometer to touch the front surface of you (numbed) eyes, measuring the pressure inside;
  • Eye muscle movement test – you’ll track moving objects while your doctor watching how your eyes move;
  • Visual acuity test – you’ll be asked to read lines of text that get smaller as you proceed down the chart, while covering each eye in turn;
  • Refraction testing – with that same chart, the doctor will flip back and forth between different lenses, asking you “Which is better?”;
  • Visual field test – the doctor will ask you to keep your head still while tracking how well you can see things at the edge of your visual field (peripheral vision);
  • Retinal examination – after dilating your eyes with special drops, the doctor will examine the back of your eye with a tool called an ophthalmoscope.

My doctor performs the retinal examination as the last item for the appointment; I’m not sure if this is true for all doctors. Since your eyes will be hypersensitive to light and will have trouble focusing properly for several hours after the exam, you should plan to walk to your appointment, ask someone to take you to the office and pick you up afterwards, or find somewhere near the office to sit and wait for the effects to wear off.

Nothing in the eye exam is painful and, when you’re done, it’s a great feeling to know that you can check off another item on the list of required annual appointments for effective diabetes self management.

If you are diabetic, do you have a yearly eye exam? What would you tell another diabetic about why they should have an eye exam as part of their diabetes treatment plan?

p.s. If you’d like to read more about my daily life, visit my personal blog.

Manage Stress: Dealing with Diabetes Fatigue

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Successfully managing a chronic disease like type 2 diabetes requires making hundreds of decisions each day, over and over again, without end; this is exhausting. Some days this is no big deal: I eat well, I exercise, I laugh with friends and family, and I test my blood sugar when I wake up plus before and after one of my meals. Other days (sometimes for several days at a time) it’s all I can do to keep up my exercise routine – the eating, stress management, and blood sugar testing all go out the window. This phenomenon is sometimes known as “diabetes fatigue”: basically, you are burned out from all of the decisions required to successfully manage your disease every day.

So, what can you do to fight diabetes fatigue?

  • Get outside for some exercise at your own pace. You don’t have to run or power walk in order to benefit from exercise, particularly mental health benefits. Moving your body, even at the lightest intensity, will release endorphins inside your body and that will automatically lighten your mood. Besides, changing your surroundings can help change your thoughts.
  • Speaking of changing your thoughts, when you catch yourself painting your diabetes self management efforts with the “all or nothing” paintbrush, change the dialogue going on inside your head. If you’re anything like me, you are your toughest critic. Some days I have to catch myself and stop the negative self-talk. Instead of saying things like, “Managing my diabetes is too much for me, I just can’t do it,” or, “My blood sugar is high so I’m a bad diabetic,” I change my thoughts to something more positive, even if I have to fake it. “I’m doing my very best to make good decisions for my diabetes,” or, “Let me look at my food journal to see why my blood sugar is high right now – more great data that will help me make better food choices.”
  • Take extra especially good care of yourself. In addition to modifying your self-talk to be more nurturing and less perfectionistic, how about going for a facial or pedicure? If spa treatments aren’t your thing, try going to bed an extra hour early – you’ll rebuild your strength and stamina at the same time you turn off your conscious mind for a few hours, so it’s a win-win. If you have a favorite tea or other hot, calorie- and- carbohydrate-free beverage, make yourself a mug and enjoy it mindfully.
  • Chat with your general practitioner, your endocrinologist (diabetes doctor), a certified diabetes educator (CDE), or a psychotherapist. Never underestimate the power of sharing how you’re feeling with someone who can actually help you improve your situation – they’re there to help and they’ve certainly heard the same problems you’re experiencing from other clients in the past.

What you don’t want to do when the disease wears you down is give up on all of the healthy choices you are making. I know it’s challenging to keep making the tough decisions about getting some exercise versus an extra hour of sleep or having a hard boiled egg with part-skim string cheese for breakfast instead of that gorgeous blueberry scone you saw in the pastry case at your favorite coffee bar, but no one has ever regretted making those trade-offs once they are past the immediate temptation; be strong and remember that you’re worth it.

Have you ever experienced diabetes fatigue? What advice would you give someone dealing with this challenge?

p.s. If you’d like to read more about my daily life, visit my personal blog.

Nourish Your Body: What can I eat with Type 2 diabetes?

effective-diabetes-self-management

One of the most common questions I hear when someone finds out that I am diabetic is, “Wow, what can you eat?” I generally say that I try to limit processed foods, foods made primarily from sugar or flour, and white starches (white potatoes, white rice, white pasta) while eating reasonable amounts of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, and almonds, and lean meats. Of course, that’s not the whole story, but that’s what fits into the average person’s attention span.

The truth is that there is not a single “diabetes diet” because everyone’s body reacts differently to different food. For me, most fruits are fine, even pineapple and bananas, both of which are fairly high in sugar, but that’s not the case for many diabetics. I love black beans but I have to be careful not to eat more than 1/4 cup at a time because they will most certainly raise my blood sugar; others might not have that problem or might not be able to eat even a small amount.

How can you tell which foods work well for your body? By testing before and after meals every time you try a new food, to see what effect it will have on your blood sugar. Testing “in pairs” (both before you eat and two hours after you start eating) is the only sure way to know which foods your body will tolerate without spiking your blood sugar and that is the name of the game when it comes to diabetes self management.

There are some foods that seem pretty universally well tolerated in terms of blood sugar maintenance and those foods tend to be low-to-no carbohydrate foods. Lean meats, healthy fats, some fruits and non-starchy vegetables all fall into that category.

Which fruits and vegetables are unlikely to raise your blood sugar? Specifically:

  • Cherries, grapefruit, plums, peaches, prunes, apples, dried apricots (unsweetened), pears, and grapes*
  • Broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, onions, bell peppers, green beans, tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, and raw carrots

*Important note about fruit: keep in mind the serving size when making your choice – generally, one cup constitutes a serving of fruit but one grapefruit is 2 servings of fruit, while two plums are one serving, and one peach or one apple or one pear is one serving; paying attention to how much you’re eating is as important as what you choose to eat.

Are there specific questions you’d like me to answer about food, eating well with diabetes, and how to make good nutritional choices for your body? Leave a comment on this post or send an email so that I can cover your questions in a future post.

Five principles of effective diabetes self management

People sometimes stop me during the day – at work, mostly – to ask what my “secret” is. I used to get embarrassed by the question but now I realize that folks are looking for a blueprint to create their own healthy life and while there’s no secret to it, I do know what works for me in maintaining good control over my diabetes. Today I’ll introduce the basic concepts; my plan is to focus on each one in detail in future articles as I delve into creating a plan for effective diabetes self management.

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The first principle is eating well. Sounds simple enough, right? If I had a dime for every self-help book, e-book, website, infomercial, etcetera offering an eating plan for weight loss or disease management, I’d be able to retire to open the organic dog biscuit bakery of my dreams! The truth is that “healthy” means something different for every body. Not everybody but every body. In other words, a food that works really well for my body’s needs might be absolutely lethal for yours. I eat two hard boiled eggs nearly every morning because my cholesterol is in the healthy range and eggs are full of protein and some fat, neither of which will cause a spike in my blood sugar. By eating them after walking or running and before work, I set myself up for a great morning without having to worry about feeling hungry before I can get to lunch. For someone with high cholesterol, though, this eating plan wouldn’t work well; they might be better with Egg Beater omelets or a poached egg white. Experiment. Try different foods and see how your body responds. It’s important to give your body good fuel in reasonable amounts according to what your body needs.

Once you have the right fuel on board, you can look for ways to exercise a little every day to help your body use the calories from what you eat. I remember how much I hated the thought of exercising every day when I started on my journey to better health – mostly because my extra weight made movement painful. If you haven’t been active on a regular basis in a while, start where you are and gradually increase your duration or intensity. For me, I could barely walk 15 minutes at a super-slow pace on the treadmill before I wanted to die. So, I started with that, every other day, for a few weeks and then I added another day of walking 15 minutes. After I’d worked myself up to 5 days a week of 15 minutes of walking, only then did I very slowly increase the duration of each session. The most amazing part to me was that, after only a month of regular walking, my blood sugar readings were already nearly back in the healthy range even while I still had at least 80 pounds to lose. Biking, swimming, skating, an elliptical trainer, circuit training with weights, Zumba, playing hockey, chair dancing – whatever exercise you enjoy that raises your heart rate will work, so pick one and start slowly!

Knowing precisely what’s going on inside your body can be a little scary. If you’re at all like me, you probably don’t see much point in testing your blood sugar since, if it’s high, you can’t really do much about it and it makes you sad (or angry, or scared) to see how high it is. I was equally bad about going to my primary care physician, ophthalmologist, and dentist: I knew the news would be bad, so what was the point? I’m going to let you in on a little secret, though: nothing in my life got better until I stopped ignoring the health team that was waiting to help me manage my disease. Testing your blood sugar allows you to know which foods your body likes and which ones will send your blood sugar soaring – that’s how you start to build a meal plan. Meeting with your primary care physician and discussing the results of your lab work will help you see whether you need to watch your sodium (high blood pressure) or cholesterol; they will also help you set goals for what your blood sugar readings should be and can send you to a dietician or diabetes educator. Seeing the ophthalmologist every year will ensure that any changes in your eyes are caught early while they can still be treated effectively. And if you’re not sure why the dentist should be a part of your diabetes treatment team, I will share that I used to think the same thing until I had 15 teeth removed in a single surgery last year due to advanced periodontal disease caused by diabetes. Keep up the twice-yearly visits to the dentist in addition to brushing 2-3 times a day and flossing at least once – don’t learn the hard way like I did.

Stress is a part of our daily lives: that won’t change no matter how well you take care of yourself. If left unmanaged, stress can negatively affect your physical and emotional well-being, sometimes leading to unhealthy coping behaviors, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of stress may include headache, chest pain, fatigue. sleep problems, anxiety, irritability, sadness or depression, over- or under-eating, drug or alcohol abuse, and social withdrawal. Finding healthy ways to handle the stress in your life can be challenging, particularly when your previous coping mechanisms might include unhealthy behaviors such as those listed above. For me, I spent most of my life using food as my stress antidote of choice. Now that I am paying more attention to taking care of my body, I spend a lot of time exploring new ways to navigate stress without turning to food. Yoga, walking, mindfulness, and deep breathing all work well for me on a day to day basis. I still struggle with binge eating in response to stress, but it’s far less frequent now that I have other viable options to turn to instead.

One easy way to handle stress is by consciously bringing as much joy into your life as possible. I was stunned to realize, at the beginning of this journey, that I couldn’t think of anything that I had truly enjoyed for years and years. Two years later, a list of my greatest sources of joy come easily to me: spending time with my husband, our pets, and the rest of my family; walking in our neighborhood; chatting with a friend; reading a book; taking a yoga or Pilates class; traveling. I have consciously chosen to explore new activities to help me figure out what energizes me and what doesn’t, so that I can pull more of the former and less of the latter into my life. The flip side of this equation is not allowing shame – a painful feeling that you (or something you have done) are foolish or wrong – to dominate your life. When my diabetes was out of control and I was 100 pounds overweight and I couldn’t even walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes without dreadful pain, I was ashamed, and that shame nearly kept me right there in that same state forever. Shame robs your life of joy if you let it, and I agree with Dr. Brene Brown who has said that the antidote to shame is empathy – from others and from yourself. Talk to trusted friends about how you feel but also start treating yourself the way you would a friend who was struggling with her own imperfections. As I say to myself at the start of each yoga class, “Inhale joy, exhale shame.”

I hope you’ll find something here of value no matter where you are on the journey to a happy, healthy life. As I said earlier, I’ll be exploring each of these principles more fully through future articles, so let me know if you have questions or additional thoughts to offer.

(Note that these principles apply equally well to effectively managing any chronic illness or, really, to living a healthy, disease-free life.)

Effectively managing stress

Do you know someone who never seems to react to the craziness around them but rather stays calm and serene at all times? While I want to be more like that, my more common response is to let the energy of my surroundings – whether calm or chaotic – dictate my mood and feelings. In the past, this led to my using food to soothe or distract myself, but after losing nearly 100 pounds and getting my Type 2 diabetes under good control, emotional eating in response to stress no longer serves me well, so I spend a fair amount of time seeking out and practicing new stress management behaviors.

Serenity
Serenity, by Ken Douglas, via Flickr

What works for me is:

  • taking a deep, cleansing breath – it sounds simple, and it is, but this is one of the most effective tools I’ve found for managing stress without turning to food. Not only does it keep me anchored to the present moment (instead of obsessing over every possible bad outcome) but filling your belly, chest, and throat with air before emptying them out with an enormous sigh feels simply decadent.
  • getting away from the situation – even slipping away for a brief moment provides a reminder that there is far more going on in the world than whatever is preoccupying me. I particularly like to walk laps around the inside of our building at work: I “get away” while still being close by in case someone needs me urgently.
  • walking meditation – my morning walks are my favorite 20, 30, 45, or 60 minutes of the day. Some days I listen to podcasts but others I simply walk and breathe and enjoy the people, animals, and scenery I encounter. The key is to focus on being really present where you are and holding those feelings of freedom and joy inside to help with perspective when things get rough later on in the day.
  • yoga – in the last six months, I have fallen in love with my yoga classes and have gained so much inner peace (not to mention flexibility and agility) from my practice. For the 60 minutes I’m in class, I focus on my breath and finding ways to bring more relaxation and joy into my body. (Note that I used to spend a lot of time in class worrying about how I looked in the various poses and what other students were thinking when I couldn’t do everything exactly as described. Now I know that no one cares even a little bit what you are doing or not doing because they are taking care of themselves, their bodies.)
  • communicating how I’m feeling – it can be verbally or in writing, but sharing what I’m worrying about  with another person nearly almost reduces the associated stress.

Do you have any favorite stress management techniques? Are you one of the unflappable folks who don’t seem bothered by anything, and, if so, what are your secrets???

 

The Future

When I started to blog, close to 12 years ago, my life was very different. Even in the last year, things have changed a lot for me, in so many lovely ways.

  • The need to lose weight is no longer a constant companion – I lost just under 100 pounds and am happy (most days!) with the way I feel in my body
  • My diabetes is well controlled
  • I have achieved a balance that works well for me between saying yes to social activities and taking time for myself
  • I am taking classes for a certification in Digital Marketing, something I have been interested in for some time and would like to explore professionally in the future

The good news about these changes is that I am so much happier now – not every minute of every day, but more often than not – and I enjoy my life tremendously.

For this blog, the changes in my life have led me to think about whether writing here is still something I want to do. As I mentioned earlier, I weigh all of my commitments carefully to make sure that I don’t overwhelm myself – even with things that would be fun – and this blog used to be a major commitment of time for me.

In thinking through things, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. I still want to write. Writing makes me happy and I enjoy it, so that’s good.
  2. I don’t want to write about my personal life anymore – it’s pretty boring at this point anyway but more than that, it just doesn’t feel like a good use of my time.
  3. The story of how I went from a morbidly obese, seriously depressed couch potato with out of control Type 2 diabetes to where I am now is interesting to a lot of people who don’t know me in real life.
  4. I don’t see a lot of people writing about how to manage Type 2 diabetes, depression, and obesity – I can bring a fresh perspective to the online discussions about these topics.

So, I’ll be writing here regularly from now on, with a focus on how to manage chronic diseases and live a healthy life. My initial goal is to post at least once a week for a month and see how that works with the rest of my life.

I am grateful beyond measure for the support many of you have shown me as I’ve struggled to make sense of my life; I hope you’ll still find something worthwhile in what I choose to write in the future. If you’re interested in more of the personal side of things, you can always follow me on Instagram, where I share lots of goofy things that happen to me during the day.