Three years ago my wife and I retired and moved permanently to my father’s croft on the remote and glorious north west coast of Scotland. Life since then has been pretty good, maybe a touch too good if recent blood tests are anything to go by. These showed that my blood sugar levels were sitting right on the threshold of “Pre type 2 diabetes” and my cholesterol levels were way too high as well. Oh dear! Maybe the wonderful local lobsters, langoustines, smoked scallops, and grass fed lamb and beef from our superb local butcher really were having an measurable affect? Ten years ago my cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure had been described as “excellent” so what had gone wrong? Maybe this was genetic as my father developed Type 2 Diabetes around the age of 70.
One factor that may have contributed was being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014. It was reasonably advanced and had obviously been around for a while which probably explained a load of visits to my former GP in Edinburgh for vague symptoms that could only be described as “not feeling right”. Eventually a PSA blood test indicated that all was not well with my prostate and I was soon undergoing treatment in the Western General. Fortunately the treatment was successful but there were two minor side effects, both of which related to the hormone implants employed to reduce testosterone production and inhibit the growth of the tumour. The reduction in testosterone significantly impaired my energy levels so my routine four or five sessions a week in the gym stopped. In addition I lost a lot of muscle mass, particularly in the legs, and my weight began to increase even though I attempted to cut back on calories (although, to be honest, there was probably the odd chocolate biscuit in there too masquerading as comfort food in trying times!).
Anyway the net result was that when the cancer treatment ended I had not had my normal exercise for almost three years and I had accumulated an additional 6kg of fat. In truth I, like 63% of UK adults, was overweight to start with :
However that extra 6kg left me feeling decidedly podgy and I knew that some action was needed. Receiving the diagnosis on blood sugar and cholesterol was a wake up call. Had I still been living in Edinburgh I suspect that my doctor’s pen would have been hovering over the prescription pad before my five minute appointment even started and I would have been on drugs for the rest of my life. Fortunately my local surgery in Aultbea provided a more relaxed environment in which to discuss the problem and consider the alternatives to drug therapy!
1.1 Taking control of blood sugar
I had absolutely no desire to begin a regime of drugs that would probably last for the rest of my life. If changes to lifestyle and diet could do the job just as well then surely that was my responsibility because it was completely under my control. I just needed to work out what to do. I agreed with my doctor that we would hold off on the drugs for a few months while I lost some weight and implemented any other lifestyle changes that might help influence my cholesterol and blood sugar.
So let’s cut to the chase! The net result is that in a little under 6 months my body fat has dropped from 29.5% to 8.3% and I have been able to reduce my cholesterol and blood sugar levels by amounts that my doctor described as “spectacular”. In addition, my blood pressure, although not high to start with, has also dropped by a significant amount.
Impressive though these stats might be however, the most significant outcome is the feeling of personal wellbeing : I simply cannot remember when I last felt so alive and energized. I am sleeping about 1.5 hours less each night yet waking feeling completely refreshed.
Have these changes been achieved at the expense of an austere diet involving only the odd cabbage leaf and a glass of Peruvian spring water? Have they been achieved at the cost of a prolonged period of starvation, misery, flagellation, cold baths, and self denial? Have they hell! I like my food and food has always been much more than just body fuel for me. It has to be plentiful and it has to be very tasty, and it has to be varied and visually appealing (so no protein shakes for me). I can say honestly that since I started this weight loss exercise that I have never felt hungry. I am eating as much as I ever did and yet have shed about 19.6kg (43lbs) of fat. In addition I eat more than twice as much fat and saturated fat as I did over the previous four decades when I adopted the low fat approach that was promoted from the 1970s onwards (and yet I gained weight in every decade in spite of being very active). Nowadays you will not find a single item labeled “low fat” in my larder. I consume full fat milk and yogurt, and butter has completely replaced low fat spreads in the fridge, although my consumption of butter is actually very low. Best of all is that this dietary change is completely sustainable going forward because the food is so good and the choice of foods is almost entirely unrestricted.
I am writing this blog because a number of people, in particular Nurse Joan at my local surgery, suggested that my experience might be helpful to other people facing similar problems. I am very happy to do so. In fact I have probably become a bit of a bore on the topic because I am genuinely astonished at how easy it has been to transform my health and reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease in a matter of months for zero financial cost, very little personal effort, and definitely no self sacrifice! If you want to learn what I did to effect this change, then read on.
1.2 My lifestyle and fitness profile : not really a couch potato
Prior to being diagnosed as pre-diabetic I would have considered such a diagnosis to indicate a couch potato lifestyle. But me? A couch potato? Surely not! So lest my lifestyle spectacles are a bit too rose tinted, here is a potted summary of my eating and exercise habits over the past 40 years.
In my schooldays I fenced at schoolboy international level and was pretty fit. I played a lot of squash at university and subsequently swam regularly – typically 2-3 miles per week. I did a lot of mountain biking and hill walking and regularly would carry a 40 pound back pack in to the hills (in the days when cameras were large and utilized large chunks of film!). Although my work involved a lot of computer time I always avoided lifts wherever possible and would walk around the office in preference to sending desk to desk emails. And for about twenty years prior to my cancer being diagnosed I would have three to six sessions a week in the gym on cardio and weights. The cardio would be reasonably vigorous too – typically an hour on a treadmill or cross trainer with around 1000 calories expended.
As I spent many years in designing cardiology equipment I was always up to date with all the latest papers and theories on cardiac health, lifestyle, and exercise. I followed the recommended low fat, high carb approach with low sodium and minimal red meat. I have always avoided ready meals and TV dinners and have never eaten a KFC in my life, although I confess to eating a single McDonalds hamburger somewhere, maybe. Food is an important element in my life and I enjoy cooking so the norm has always been food freshly prepared from raw ingredients. Although I never consciously tracked the amount consumed I am confident that I have always consumed at least my “5 a day”. As for alcohol, I am a fan of fine malt whisky and red wine and have consumed my fair share of both over the years. While I do try to stay within the recommended limits I have no doubt I exceeded them on many occasions and of course the limits have risen and fallen over the years too as new data became available.
I think I can reasonably claim that my diet and lifestyle over many years hardly fits with the classic profile of a couch potato so when my doctor suggested that a change of diet and lifestyle might really be worth trying before the drugs I was not sure where to start since I seemed to have already ticked quite a few of the ‘healthy” lifestyle and diet boxes. A bit of research was called for!