This guest post is written by Colleen Mitchell of Inspired Forward. I’m sure you will find Colleen’s story, “How I Lost 50 Pounds as a Type 1 Diabetic” to be informational and incredibly inspiring. Please be sure to check out Colleen’s bio at the bottom and follow her!
Quickly, What’s Diabetes?
If you’ve heard the word “diabetes” at all during your life, you probably picture someone who’s overweight and eats a lot of sugar. You probably don’t picture a semi-skinny 9-year-old running around a summer day camp with a bunch of other kids the same age.
But that’s what I grew up doing. Every year from age six I’ve attended a summer camp for children with Type 1 Diabetes, which is NOT the kind where you picture someone stuffing their face with doughnuts.
There’s a basic difference between Type 1 and Type 2: Type 1s don’t produce insulin, whereas Type 2s produce it but can’t absorb it very well.
But I’m not here to lecture you on the differences, which you can read about on your own. I’m here to tell you that for 21 years of my life I believed I would never be able to lose weight as a Type 1 Diabetic.
Why It’s Hard
Every visit to the pediatric endocrinologist consisted of standing on a scale that looked more appropriate for weighing farm animals than people. At the end of every quarterly appointment, the doc would send me on my way with a dangerously high A1c (the average measure of blood sugar over the last three months) and no changes to my insulin pump settings that might fix it.
He never asked about my diet, my activity levels, or whether I had done anything to lose weight.
I knew I needed to, but he never said anything.
“Must be typical for Type 1s,” I found myself believing.
At diabetes camp, the dietitians are required to teach according to the FDA guidelines. Over the years, those guidelines have morphed from multiple versions of the food pyramid to something called “My Plate.” Growing up, I learned that for a blood sugar under 75 mg/dL (milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood), I should eat 15 grams of carbohydrate and check my blood sugar in 15 minutes. If still below 75 mg/dL, have another 15 grams and repeat until my blood sugar is “better.”
What I’ve learned in the last three years is that insulin is actually a hormone that basically controls fat storage. When there’s more insulin in the body, more fat is stored, which is why Type 2 Diabetics are generally (but not always) overweight or obese, and why overweight and obese people are more at risk to develop it.
Jason Fung has written multiple articles on Medium and in his books (notably, The Obesity Code) about how insulin is the primary responsible party for those who are overweight—and thus sometimes develop Type 2 Diabetes.
Losing weight as a Type 1 Diabetic, therefore, is incredibly difficult.
Because we don’t produce insulin on our own, we have to do it all ourselves with the assistance of either MDI (multiple daily injections) or insulin pumps. Neither of these is foolproof or perfect, but when paired with a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) it’s a lot easier to see trends and make better decisions about when to eat, how much to eat, and how much to correct with insulin.
Oh—and those 15 grams of carbohydrate? I really need less than 6 to fix a low. Otherwise, it’s “Hello, high blood sugar!”
What I Did
The diabetes camp served—and still serves—lunch with upwards of 70 grams of carbohydrate to diabetic kids who don’t know any better, and adult volunteers, over half of whom are considered overweight or obese.
I learned that I cannot survive without carbs, and as a result, my weight ballooned up to 225 pounds—and along with it, my blood sugars riding a roller coaster of highs and lows.
I felt like trash, looked horribly unhealthy, and hated what my life had become. It revolved around the need to correct a low with carbs, and then correct the high with insulin. It’s a vicious cycle that had spiraled out of control by January 2016, when I’d finally had enough.
Let Me Pause to Ask You a Question.
How often do you hear about someone with diabetes and think to yourself, “they did that to themselves”? Or how many people do you know who do think that way?
I just want to gently step in here and remind everyone that Type 1 is not preventable or curable, and we don’t get it by eating too much sugar. (Too much sugar just makes it worse.)
With that said, what I’m about to tell you changed my life and at times feels a bit like magic.
I lost 50 pounds without exercise. I changed my food lifestyle from Pasta Roni and tortillas to bacon, eggs, cheese, and vegetables.
The Inciting Incident
On January 11th, 2016, my blood sugars were skyrocketing and then plummeting, and at one point I ate over 300 carbohydrates and it barely made a bump. My blood sugars usually looked a bit like this:
For years I’d gone through cycles or spirals of weight-loss research, and the previous one brought keto—or “low carb”—into my awareness.
On January 12th, 2016, I switched to low carb and shocked myself by having the best blood sugars of my life THAT DAY. Over the next couple of weeks, the trend became clear:
My blood sugars were stabilizing! And not only that… My weight seemed to magically drop between 15 and 20 pounds during those first three or so months. After that, it stabilized between 200 and 210 pounds for a really, really long plateau.
(I’m partially blaming my father-in-law’s fantastic cooking, but I too take the blame for becoming lax.)
Finally, Something Worked!
I had proof that it worked. Despite creeping up a bit in total carbs, my blood sugars were still great and I wasn’t at my highest weight anymore.
Finally, after a long period of stalling, for the second time I reached my “personal level of disgust,” and on December 3rd, 2017, I committed 100% to avoid all unnecessary carbs.
“Unnecessary” meaning those that aren’t used specifically to raise my blood sugar.
That meant sticking to meats, cheeses, and veggies at holidays. It meant politely declining my FIL’s really good mimosas on New Year’s Eve. And it meant not lying to myself about what I could actually afford to eat—in terms of my blood sugar and weight, not my wallet.
I’m constantly astonished by my 2018 graph on Trendweight:
It’s easy to see when I went on business trips or volunteered at diabetes camp (my weight always spikes that week, I’ve discovered). The only exception is a business trip in August during which I lost weight—and then plateaued for about three months.
I’d been told my entire life that losing weight as a type 1 diabetic is difficult, if not impossible.
I have also been told my entire life that my body needs insane amounts of carbs to survive, yet all it took for me to stop believing that was a really bad day of blood sugars and reaching my personal level of disgust with my body.
Why It Worked
First of all, my mindset changed.
For years beforehand, I’d tried and failed to lose weight. I’ve been using the Loseit app since 2013 and I documented my weight struggles there. I can go back to any date and see how terribly I ate back then.
After paying for a personal trainer for over a year, I lost maybe six pounds but then put it back on—all while still working with her. I got stronger, yes, but seemingly lost no fat and couldn’t prevent a low blood sugar following a workout.
My years of those spirals of weight-loss research and desperation had done nothing but prime my thinking that I’d need a supplement or a program or a trainer—and not that I could do it myself.
But That Was All a Lie.
The diet itself is what worked. For all intents and purposes, I’ve switched what my body uses as fuel—from carbohydrate to fat—and only use carbs as a means to correct a low blood sugar.
And even then, I don’t eat much.
Low-carb lets me feel full without eating a lot, and when I paired it with intermittent fasting my results improved dramatically.
Because I only eat between about 7:30 AM and 12:00 PM, I don’t eat “dinner” but I’m also not even hungry the rest of the day because what I eat during that window is so filling.
I Still Have a Ways to Go
Like Tanya, I’m not all the way there yet. But I’m more than halfway—two-thirds—of the way to my goal. I still want to shed another 25 to 30 pounds this year, to finally reach a healthy weight for the first time I can remember in my entire life.
Nobody can make a change in their life unless they really, truly want to.
I have family members who are obese—who make noises about losing weight but don’t actually change any of their behaviors to do so. I know other diabetics whose blood sugars swing wildly like mine did, but can’t comprehend the idea of voluntarily choosing to give up 95% of the carbs they eat on a daily basis at the direction of their misguided doctors.
Fortunately, I was able to lose 50 pounds with this lifestyle—this way of eating—because I’ve never felt deprived and I didn’t start it to lose the weight.
I started it to fix my blood sugars, and it worked.
The weight loss was just a side effect.
Colleen Mitchell is the recovering perfectionist, organizational nerd, and entrepreneur/virtual assistant behind Inspired Forward, a blog and service business to help anxious millennials cut through the mental obstacles of anxiety, self-doubt, and overwhelm so they can construct a well-organized life and become the best versions of themselves.
She’s an advocate for mental health and Type 1 Diabetes education, though not always in that order. She lives near Seattle, Washington, with her husband and cat, even though she’s more of a dog person.