I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about 17 years ago, at the age of 29.
One of the first steps I took following my diagnosis involved diabetes education. The classes were basically an orientation to dieting: what foods to enjoy (veggies and protein) and what foods to avoid (everything else).
I had been dieting since I was a teenager and was no stranger to the practice of food restriction. A diabetes diagnosis felt pretty cruel after I had already skipped so many carbs and attended so many Weight Watchers meetings.
Still, I took this refresher course on eating as reinforcement of the message — what I was eating made me sick, and not eating this laundry list of food items would make me well.
For 15 years, I cycled through diabetes education programs and various diets without actually improving my blood sugar control in a lasting way.
So last year, after decades of being failed by diets, I tried something different. I signed on to work with an anti-diet dietitian who helped me snap out of diet obsession and start eating intuitively — without restriction.
I first learned about Lauren Newman, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, from the podcast of another anti-diet dietitian (and the author of “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating”) Christy Harrison.
I had never imagined there were health professionals who would understand both living with diabetes and intuitive eating. Up until this point, I thought those two aspects of my life were utterly incompatible.
After spending years immersed in food rules and covered with shame, my mind started to change. These are some of the big lessons I learned from nearly a year of working with Lauren both one-on-one and in group settings.
If you’re used to moralizing food choices, the suggestion to eat when you’re hungry could trigger anxiety. I often spiraled with thoughts like, But am I actually hungry? What do I eat? What if I get it wrong? I always get it wrong!
Before I explored intuitive eating, it seemed everything was riding on the decision of when and what to eat. There were periods when I monitored my blood sugar very closely and would vow not to eat until it dropped below a certain level.
Spoiler: This never went according to plan.
Turns out, I needed someone supportive to channel the basic wisdom about thriving and caring for my body, which pretty much boiled down to eating when I’m hungry.
There are plenty of diets that claim to cure diabetes, but none of them do.
People may temporarily maintain blood sugar control by restricting their diet in some way, but if they go back to eating “normally,” their bodies will go right back to using insulin and glucose “abnormally.”
That said, everyone seems to know someone who cured their diabetes with a diet — and good for those people. I am not one of them.
With a lifetime of dieting, I have proof that it won’t:
- prevent diabetes
- cure diabetes
- make me a happier, healthier person
One thing dieting does do, however, is trigger yet another cycle of restricting and binging, concurrent with a cycle of shame and craving. Being my own witness to the ineffectiveness of restricted eating led me to remove dieting from my diabetes management toolkit.
Guess what? There are still plenty of tools left.
Up until last year, I thought what I ate was responsible for about 90 percent of changes in my blood sugar. I gave exercise, medication, and miscellaneous factors responsibility for the remaining 10 percent.
Because so much emphasis had been placed on food, I thought it was all that mattered in controlling my diabetes.
Then Lauren shared this dumbfounding resource with me that proposed that there are 42 factors that can affect blood sugar. Every time I responded to a high glucose reading with “What did I eat?,” I was neglecting to consider literally dozens of other factors.
The list, which includes stress, hormones, and the weather (?!?), empowered me to release rigid food rules (for my mental health) and discover what other factors I could modify to support healing.
Diabetes can be a creeping sickness. For me at least, it started with the shame and shock of diagnosis and spread like a wedge that cleaved the experience of my body from my conscious mind.
I blamed myself for not working hard enough to prevent diabetes. I thought my body was broken, and my decisions had been faulty — I felt I couldn’t trust myself.
That meant I didn’t know what it felt like to feel hungry or satisfied, to feel well or unwell, because those feelings weren’t an integrated part of managing diabetes.
Working with Lauren helped me slowly and consciously get out of my own way and begin to re-inhabit my body, to notice physical sensations and connect them to make informed decisions about caring for myself.
I could finally stop seeing my doctor as the diabetes police and realize that I was in charge of the team that would help me be well.
My doctor didn’t know much about me beyond lab results, so at Lauren’s suggestion, I wrote her a letter explaining what my 15-year journey with diabetes had been like. I shared details of all the treatments I had tried, the endless diets, and the cycle of burnout that accompanies living with chronic illness.
Lauren also spoke to my doctor on my behalf, explaining why restriction was not a healthy option for me. The dynamic changed, putting me at the center of my own care.
After that, my doctor and I learned to work together as a team. My primary doctor, therapist, and family played supporting roles.
It turns out that diabetes management and intuitive eating are not only compatible, using them together has transformed how I feel about living with type 2 diabetes. Over my year of connecting with Lauren and other people living with diabetes, hope bloomed.
Poet Yahia Lababidi wrote, “Hope is more patient than despair and so outlasts it.”
I have abandoned the despair that I could never be good enough at dieting to save myself from diabetes and accepted the hope that small changes in my mindset will continue to nudge me toward living well with diabetes.