Reversing Type 2 diabetes – in 5 steps

Author Holly Hart, MSc, is a qualified Health Psychologist and one of Changing Health’s lifestyle coaches. This article is based on real life case studies, including two users who achieved Type 2 diabetes remission in 10 weeks between April to June, 2018.

People with Type 2 diabetes usually know they need to make a change, and they have the motivation to do so. But their self-efficacy – that is, their beliefs about their capabilities to succeed – is often low; they perceive significant barriers preventing them from sustaining a healthier lifestyle.

There are, however, some useful techniques to help people with diabetes overcome the barriers to change and translate their motivation into action. Here are a few recommendations from my experience supporting people to better manage their condition:

1) Letting people know that good food can be cheap

Many people think fresh, “healthy food” is more expensive (it doesn’t have to be!), while others may be hampered by a lack of social support – often key to success. Some may worry that eating as a family may require the entire family to change their diet, and some may have been disillusioned by a lack of success when trying to make lifestyle changes in the past.

2) Making education simple

People with diabetes report that one of their biggest barriers to making the changes they need to is a lack of access to education and information. Those who do receive guidance from their healthcare provider often tell us that there was too much to take in, too quickly, and they ended up with only a limited understanding of how their condition affects them. We tend to provide links to websites and tell people what to search for online instead, so they can learn at their own pace in their own time.

3) Showing that dieting doesn’t mean no food

A common misconception we find among people with diabetes is the idea that following a diet means cutting out your favourite food and getting up at 4am for an exercise class. In fact, the simplest lifestyle changes are typically the key to successful management or even remission of diabetes. The inspirational success stories you get to hear as a coach are testament to this approach, and communicating to patients that their lifestyle changes don’t need to be radical can transform their outcome expectations.

Debra, a Changing Health user who recently achieved remission in 10 weeks, did so by making only “little swaps”, like pasta for cauliflower rice, so a healthier diet didn’t feel like a chore to maintain. It’s also important to avoid warning people with diabetes about what will happen if they don’t make a change; research has shown this doesn’t work.

Instead, we find that listing the benefits of a healthier lifestyle can be much more effective, particularly those which impact the most on everyday life: improved cognition and memory, better concentration, reduced tiredness and feeling less out of breath when walking the dog or taking the children to the park. focusing on past successes (identifying and emphasising previous, successful attempts to initiate lifestyle change) has been linked to optimal care consultations and better clinical outcomes.

Pairing this with discussions about how to overcome barriers that have occurred in the past, or might come up in the future, enables the patient to think more positively about making a change and this positivity is key.

4) Setting achievable goals from the outset

Healthcare providers can also support patients on their journey towards a healthier lifestyle by encouraging them to set clear short, medium and long-term goals. SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely – keep patients focussed every step of the way and have been proven to be effective in improving outcomes.

If patients write these goals down, the chances of success are even higher – up to 42%, according to new research. Changing Health coaches suggest users write down their progress so far on post-it notes and leave them in prominent places around the house, boosting their motivation to keep going when times are tough.

5) Personalising the approach to support

Every individual is at a different stage in their behaviour change journey and so it’s important to take their unique circumstances into account. Ultimately, it’s about re-framing the conversation to focus on their own possibilities of success, rather than the consequences of failure, at every point of contact.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt, though, is that while people with diabetes don’t often realise that transforming their health can be a straightforward process – once they do, they’re bound to surprise you.

Watch Sheinaz, a GP Practice Manager who achieved diabetes remission with Changing Health, tell the story of her weight loss journey in NHS Digital’s short film here: https://bit.ly/2v67fvR

Reversing Type 2 diabetes: one year on

In July 2017, Tina C, a Fire Prevention Officer from Northamptonshire, achieved something incredible. She had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes two years earlier and needed medications to keep her blood sugars in check day by day. She was feeling lost, was struggling to keep a check on her diet, and things were getting worse.

Then came the call from the BBC. A second series of the hit documentary How to Stay Young was on the cards, and Tina had been selected to participate. If she was up for it, she would embark on a strict, 12-week diet and exercise plan supervised by Changing Health’s Professor Mike Trenell, with the aim of reducing her “real body age”. She would undergo extensive testing at four, eight and twelve weeks to assess everything from her weight and blood glucose levels to quality of sleep and cognitive function.

Tina accepted. The diet took some serious willpower; calories were reduced to just 800 per day, with each meal logged in the Changing Health app alongside Tina’s daily physical activity levels for her lifestyle coach to feed back on. It was a dramatic shift from Tina’s normal habits, but she kept it up.

Fast-forward 12 challenging weeks, and there was big news. Watched by millions across the UK on BBC1, Professor Trenell gave Tina the results from her final round of tests. Had she walked in and there and then, Professor Trenell told her, he wouldn’t say she has diabetes. He’d say she haddiabetes.

She was gobsmacked. She had taken control of her health and transformed her life. And a year on, she’s kept it up. “It’s been a difficult year with some big challenges,” she says. “Sometimes your mind gets unfocussed, you end up comfort eating – in April I lost my way. It was the first time I’d felt like that, and it disappointed me.

“But then, 6-8 weeks ago, something reclicked; I’ve gone back to being strict with myself, logging my foods and exercise in the Changing Health app and re-reading the learning content. It’s really important to have the facts, because when you do you realise you’re in control. I reminded myself that my health is something I can change. It is possible.”

Perhaps the most drastic change in Tina’s lifestyle over the past year has been her meal choices. “I used to just load up on carbs, thinking they would fill me up – not realising that carbs actually turn to sugar in your blood! Now I’m eating a lot of vegan meals and plant-based foods… and sugar-free baking has changed my life! I use a lot a cacao in my cake recipes; it’s just a matter of getting your taste buds used to it.

“The recipes in the Changing Health app have been really useful too. All kinds of foods I didn’t even know about have become staples… Chia seeds, for one, have become a massive part of my life. I have to think of unhealthy foods as evil. I’ll allow myself a treat on very special occasions, for example I baked a normal cake for a 40th birthday, and I’m going to have a slice!

“I make sure that on 6 days a week I’m brilliant, so on the 7th day I can have a glass of wine or something a little naughty! My strategy is to picture my own long-term health. I keep a couple of pics on my phone of how I was before, just to remind myself.”

There’s no doubt that Tina’s husband’s support has been invaluable too; together they’re quite the team. “He gave up six months of his life to lose weight with me and support me through completely changing my diet and starting a regular exercise routine and if he can do it, I can too. I was having a tough time in April, and without him, I would’ve self-destructed. But now I feel so much better. You just feel more positive when your diet is good and when I’m healthy I get through things. I feel really different in how organised I am – literally just ticking things off my to-do list all day!”

“We’ve got two businesses that I help out with; and we always look for different solutions to get the energy we need for a long day without eating sugar. Planning is very important. I’m back down to 1000 calories temporarily so this morning, for example, I had chia seeds and soya milk, for lunch it was chickpea falafels and a green salad, and this evening we’ll have chicken fajitas without the wraps.”

“Having the Changing Health app on hand is like having a little buddy in my pocket. When my husband isn’t there, it’s a constant reminder: what have I eaten this week? It’s engaging, nice to look at and the content is easy to understand.”

“Ultimately, the power’s in your hands to change your health. I still can’t get my head around how I made that difference and changed my life. It’s not expensive, it’s not a lot of work, it’s just you and your mindset. If somebody gave you that chance, if somebody told you could do it – why wouldn’t you?”

Watch Tina’s moving account of her experience reversing Type 2 diabetes at www.changinghealth.com/cs2