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Meet our Herbie of the Week, Natalie. Natalie's a nurse who gained weight while pregnant and developed gestational diabetes. She switched to a plant-based diet and credits it for her new life full of energy!
I have always been overweight, but like many women I gained weight with each of my three pregnancies. During routine prenatal screening with my second child, I was shocked to get the phone call that I had tested positive for Gestational Diabetes. With no family history it seemed very strange, but I was able to keep my sugars under control and have a healthy pregnancy and baby. The prenatal educators told me that having Gestational Diabetes was a warning sign for future problems, so after I'd recovered I set about losing weight. When I unexpectedly became pregnant with our third, I began to suspect my sugars were high almost immediately, and this time it was much harder to manage: medications, wide blood sugar swings and a 50 pound weight gain. Again, I was thankful for a healthy baby, and that routine testing afterwards showed that the diabetes had "gone away" but looking back now, I can see it was lurking.
After our third I was exhausted! I chalked it up to being the mother of three boys 6 and under, but I was just so fatigued all the time. By early afternoon, I would have to let the kids watch movies so I could nap on the couch. At 200 pounds, and 5'4 it was hard for me to play with them. The lightbulb moment came in 2010 when my baby was 9 months old. I felt so bad, I dug out my old pregnancy blood sugar meter just to make sure that the diabetes hadn't returned and was stunned when the number read 220. (And this was a couple hours after a small meal...) I'm an emergency room nurse, so I see every day the consequences of diabetes. Furthermore, my family does have a STRONG family history of heart attack, and sudden cardiac death, usually in their 40's. I knew that I was now at astronomical risk for a heart attack as well.
I got an appointment with my primary care doctor who told me to "lose some weight." That's great, but it had been my lifelong battle and I knew I needed to treat the problem too, while I worked at changes. I got into see a new doctor, who promptly put me on medications for high blood pressure and an injectable medication called Victoza (ironically, the same one Paula Deen is now a spokesperson for). Thus began one year of daily injections, $200 a month pharmacy bills and co-pays for doctors, needles and test strips. The medication came with big warning labels about the potential for thyroid cancer, but at the time, I just didn't know of a better option. The medication did stabilize my blood sugars, and help me to quickly lose 35 pounds. The trouble with the medication is that after time, the appetite blunting effect wears off, and with an external control gone and no change in eating habits, I quickly learned to cheat again and began to gain weight.
About this time, a friend of mine "went vegan." To be honest, I always considered Vegans a fringe group... and most likely malnourished. I had been trained on the standard ADA diet platform, and so as a joke I literally googled "Vegan Diabetic Diet." What would you eat, nothing but tofu? And all those carbs!!! But that search led me almost immediately to Dr. Barnard's excellent book about reversing diabetes . I remember sitting at my computer completely stunned. For the first time I had hope that instead of "managing" my diabetes I could get rid of it! I immediately ordered it on Kindle, and "went vegan" myself the next day. Dr. Barnard's work led me to Engine 2 , Dr. Esselstyn's work, Dr. McDougal and eventually Happy Herbivore. I had a few pizza slip ups in the beginning when I got too hungry, and I really blew it over Christmas for a few days (Darn Grandma's cookie recipe) but I felt so lousy in those few days, I'm glad for it now. I haven't looked back since. I love the food I eat!
My husband was supportive, but skeptical. He had seen me try so many different things to lose weight... but it wasn't until Forks over Knives came out that he understood that this was about so much more than weight. Now the whole family is supportive of me, and my husband (also a nurse) has been great about keeping known temptations out of the house. They themselves are unwilling to go totally plant based at this time, but we have really cut our consumption... and what animal products they do eat are all organic, humanely raised and mostly local. I'm hoping that by setting a good example, they will join me someday soon!
While my husband has been supportive about keeping junk food out of the house, taking away all my usual favorite foods (pizza, french fries, etc.) really showed me that my problems went deeper than poor food choices. And it wasn't until you profiled Happy Rehab Doc , that I began to really get some clarity about what had been driving my past weight gain. I know now that I am a food addict. I have heard people say that "addict" is too strong a term, but what else do you call something that is killing you, but you cannot stop? I will eat for any reason: celebration, stress, anger, boredom. I will eat past full, or when I'm not hungry. Happy Rehab Doc's excellent blog and profile led me to Overeater's Anonymous works, and I use their works daily. Maintaining healthy boundaries with food is a big part of my "new life" because I know that once that bag of Tortilla Chips and Salsa gets opened, I'm a goner!
I'm focusing on finding healthy ways to enjoy myself more, without using food. But it is a daily struggle. To date, I'm am down 50 pounds and have gone from a size 18 to an 8. I have about 20 more pounds to go, but I continue to lose slowly and my last blood work was amazing... Hgb A1c was 5.3... non diabetic. My last Cholesterol was 183 (and that was in my transitional pizza phase) I cannot wait to see what it is now. I'm off all my meds, and now the doctor and I spend more time chatting about our kids and being working moms, than about side effects and medication options. Interestingly, my doc and nutritionist have both been VERY supportive... I know that's not everyone's experience, so if you have providers that you cannot work with, look for one you can. A good doctor is a tremendous help :)
The weight loss is great, but the biggest change is in how I feel. Man oh man, the energy! I sleep better, my skin cleared up, my moods improved. I rarely need those afternoon naps. When my kids ask me to chase them, I can give them a run for their money. Because I felt better, I was able to exercise more... and I nearly fell over when my Zumba teacher told me last week I needed to make it harder because I was in such better shape. Being in better shape made it possible to try snowboarding with my boys this winter, and gives me the strength to give piggyback rides or wrestle unwilling bedtime buckaroos into their pajamas. And the best is our plan to run a 5K mud/obstacle race this summer with the kids. I just cannot get over how much better I feel.
Reminds me of a quote I heard by Dr. Ornish that you start this "diet" out of fear, but you continue because of the joy... the joy of how you feel. He made a comment that stuck with me "Joy is sustainable." Now instead of testing my blood sugar, I test new recipes... And I have found the challenges of running down new ingredients (Found Asofoetida at our local Indian Store) far more pleasurable than tracking down more test strips before my insurance resets for the year. One thing I did not anticipate was the whole ethical/philosophical shift that would come with changing my eating
I started out purely for health, for selfish reasons if I'm honest. I'm a Christian, and believe deeply in the principle of stewardship. I'm not responsible for the world, but I am entrusted to take care of certain things: my body, my children, the environment, my patients, etc. I remember being profoundly impacted by the classic Mennonite cookbook "More With Less ." (Advocates a move toward vegetarian diet to help with world hunger). I had read "Diet for a Small Planet " in college, and I had even seen Food Inc ... But being on a whole foods, plant based diet has been a wonderful way to link all those ideas together. I cannot realistically effect geo-political events or policies, but I'm so happy that what is right for my body also happens to be right for animals, the environment and my fellow humans. I'm glad that seeking out tasty local produce keeps dollars in small businesses in my community. I've shifted to buying vegan cosmetics and shoes (why should an animal suffer for my vanity?). And while there are many strident voices in the vegan community, I find that just being open about my experiences and journey has been a better tool than anything else. I tell my patients, where appropriate, of my experiences and refer them to resources if they are interested. It's been quite a journey, and while I'm nearing completion on some of the goals, I know that there are new ones waiting for me.
Looking back two years ago, I knew where my life was headed... down the road of increasing illness. I nearly missed out on my own life!!!! But I am so grateful to all the various authors, doctors and cooks who have showed me a better (and tastier!) way. Thanks to a plant based diet, I most likely have a long healthy life ahead of me. It's such a tremendous gift.
What does the future hold? Medical Relief Work? Grandkids? Snowboarding Phenom (okay, probably not...) But I have options now! I had a co-worker jokingly ask me the other day how Vegan life was, and I replied "Bean-a-licous!" And it is!
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Natalie!