The birthday card said ‘Fab at 50’, but all I could think was I’m fat at 50. I was morbidly obese at 22st, with added hypertension and type 2 diabetes, yet like millions of others, I’d spent years in denial about the seriousness of my situation. When I finally addressed the illness and put diabetes into remission, I transformed.
I celebrated my half-century partying in the company of good friends and woke up the next day the loneliest man in Britain. Hungover, sleep-deprived, blood sugars crashing, deep despair enveloped me. I was going to die young, and I was frightened.
As I’ve just turned 54, I look back on that point as the day I hit rock bottom. The change has been so significant that it feels like I’m looking at someone else’s life. I no longer take diabetes medication and fall asleep in afternoon meetings. I think in the present more often. Yet it took years, possibly decades, to adequately address my failing health.
I’m incredibly thankful that I dealt with my chronic ill health before the pandemic hit the UK.
A January lockdown with most gyms shut down by a global pandemic is not the most comfortable starting point on a health journey. Yet with increasing evidence that people who suffer from chronic inflammation tend to be hit hardest by the virus, there is no more important a time to consider lifestyle changes that improve our resilience.
Even after a formal diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, I remained in denial. I hid the prescription of diabetes drug Metformin. I felt shame collecting the box of white pills from the pharmacy.
Yet by the time I was 50, I’d started to read as much literature as I could about nutrition and weight loss. I narrowed my diet options down to two very different approaches. I could adhere to an ultra-low calorie diet that Professor Roy Taylor at the University of Newcastle had shown could put type 2 diabetes into remission. My other option was to significantly reduce carbohydrate intake to no more than 20g a day. That means no chips, pasta or rice. I chose the latter option, often described as a keto diet.
A ketogenic diet is where you restrict carbohydrate intake to around 5 per cent of your total consumption of macronutrients. The diet’s critical aspect is a significant increase in your use of ‘good’ fats like olive oil and butter. Having read The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Dr Jeff Volek and Dr Stephen Phinney, I understood our bodies to run on two sources of energy – glucose or fat. This process is often simplified to explain that carbohydrate restriction allows our bodies to become fat adapted, meaning our body uses fat reserves to generate energy.
I found increasing fat intake difficult. For decades our thinking has been shaped by government advice and industry advertising. Using even an extra teaspoon of butter to cook food felt irrational for weight loss. To establish a nutritional programme that defied Public Health England’s guidance was uncomfortable, though in the end, having read the research, I took a leap.
When you’re wrestling with something as necessary as a shopping list, you have to be clear about your objectives. Mine was to lose weight and reverse diabetes. As I was breaching public guidelines, I became obsessive about measuring weight and blood sugar.
After clearing out the cupboards and stocking up with eggs, bacon, steaks and olive oil, I started on the new regime. I lost 1lb a day in the first week. My daily finger-prick blood test showed signs of progress before the end of the week.
More importantly, I started to sleep better. Many people with type 2 diabetes have to use the lavatory a couple of times a night. I began to sleep through until morning. Poor sleep increases insulin resistance – a disaster for Type 2 diabetics. By the end of the first week, I was jumping out of bed each morning with a spring in my step.
Within a year, I’d lost 100lb and reversed type 2 diabetes.
Even though the most significant contribution to turning around my health was changing the food I put in myself, I set myself two very tiny exercise targets. Five thousand steps a day may seem a small number for many, but it was a hard target and physically taxing for me. I rigidly applied a rule to walk up every staircase rather than take the lift. The first time I climbed the steps to reach the Commons committee corridors I thought I’d need oxygen halfway up!
Within weeks I’d upped the steps target to 10,000 a day and took a few tiny journeys on a second-hand hybrid bike. I rewarded myself with a new kit for the bike every time I hit a weight target. I put a basket on the handlebars, which led to me using the bike on trips to the shops. I began to feel more energetic and took a few walking meetings with my team’s younger members in parliament. Outside the hours of planned exercise, I was more active. I just did more tiny things, like tidying up the flat or walking into work if the sun was shining.
I plucked up the courage to sign up with a personal trainer. Clayton, a quietly spoken but thoughtful trainer, took me through my paces in Kennington Park each week. On our first meeting, I couldn’t complete a single press-up. Within weeks he had me boxing and skipping, much to the amusement of the Labour party members of Lambeth who spotted me as they walked their dogs and took their kids to school.
Now that I’m on maintenance, I don’t have weight targets. My goal is an active life. I’m part of a group of friends who hold each other accountable for being more active. We call ourselves the PoP Club – Persons of Positivity. One of the challenges we set ourselves last November was to walk, run or ride 5k a day. I think I managed 26 days of running. Yet the rules are loose. For some, just getting out of the house to walk is a feat of will and organisation. Our only group rule is that we look after each other.
This year’s resolutions are all about leading an active life. I want to learn to ski. I’m hoping to take part in an organised bike ride and raise some money for charity. I want to join a running club or sign up to parkrun. I’ve still got a 12,000 daily steps target, which is quite hard to complete within the lockdowns but helps maintain my focus.
Covid has given us all time to reflect on the essential things in life – personal health being top of the list.
If I have one political mission left in me, it’s to work with the 3.5 million people in the UK who have type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that with a change of nutrition and exercise, at least two million of them can completely reverse their condition. That really would be a game-changer to achieve.
Downsizing: How I Lost 8 Stone, Reversed my Diabetes and Regained my Health by Tom Watson is published by Kyle Books. To order your copy, call 0844 851 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop