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Six readers share: How I reclaimed my health

Six Healthy Food Guide readers tell their inspiring stories of how they took control of their health challenges.

Health challenge: Obesity

Emma Dillon, 27 (Takanini, Auckland)

Emma’s story

“I had been overweight for a number of years, struggling with portion control and not being accountable for emotional eating.

My life changed when I saw a picture of myself in a new outfit, taken by a professional photographer at a wedding.  Loads of people have fat photos – but this picture was supposed to be me at my best angle! I was horrified and decided to make a change. I am 169cm tall, and at 92.9kg when I started out (March 2006), I was obese.

I wasn’t a takeaway junkie – my downfall was portion size and not recognising those foods which should be occasional treats. As I have learnt more about what is good for my body and what foods make me feel good, I have changed my food choices. Choosing foods with lower kilojoules means I get to eat full servings without feeling deprived. I make time to sit down and concentrate on what I’m eating and enjoy each mouthful. I still get to enjoy the foods I love with a controlled approach.

Three years down the line and 30kg smaller, I’m hooked on exercise and I have changed my attitude towards food. I still love eating, but now I practise self control and make healthy choices – with the odd treat thrown in. I’m no longer at an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes and the improvement in my joints and flexibility mean I now live each day to its fullest.

I recently ran my first quarter marathon and next year, I intend to run my first marathon.”

Emma’s tips

  • Get active. Find a fun activity you enjoy to get moving – try dancing or aqua aerobics. It won’t feel like exercise!
  • Get support. If you’re finding it hard to keep motivated, ask friends and family for their help and support. Tell them how they can help – you will find they are happy to do so.
  • Think positively. It will be hard and you may have setbacks but don’t give up.
  • Do it for you. The most  important person is you. Make changes to better your health and well-being – you may inspire others.

About the condition

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) over 30, and it’s associated with increased risk for a range of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, gastro-oesophageal reflux, stress, urinary incontinence, gout, infertility and obstructive sleep apnoea. Around one in five New Zealand adults is obese.

HFG nutritionist comments

“Sometimes we imagine that to lose weight and keep it off we will have to continually deny ourselves and feel deprived. Thanks, Emma, for reinforcing that eating a healthy diet and losing weight does not have to be like that. I bet you’re an inspiration for others.”

Health challenges: Post-natal depression, obesity, high blood pressure

Vanessa Browne, 40 (Howick, Auckland)

Vanessa’s story

“After the birth of my second child, I found it extremely hard to lose the weight. I developed post-natal depression (PND) and despite my efforts and medication, the weight kept piling on. I decided to beat PND, get off the medication, get on a programme to lose the weight and get fit again. Beating PND and getting off the medication happened within six months of being diagnosed, so I was off to a good start. But lowering my blood pressure, losing weight and getting fit were a lot slower in coming.

I hit rock bottom when I went to my GP and he weighed me. My weight was 89kg and one BMI point off being clinically obese. My blood pressure was too high, as was my cholesterol. Instead of prescribing medication, he referred me to a dietitian who was so inspiring and very passionate about health. I learnt that what I thought I was doing completely right was only a little bit right. I was eating good food, but my portions were too big and I was eating too late at night.

My dietitian taught me about portion control and nothing has been banned – I can still enjoy a glass of wine or takeaways, but now I make healthier choices and only have takeaways every now and then, not every weekend.

I also spoke to a personal trainer, who created a fitness programme for me. I have dropped 11kg, my blood pressure is within a healthy range and my cholesterol is down to 4.1. My workouts are varied so I don’t get bored and six months into it I am still going strong, so I know I’m changing my lifestyle.

I have sold or given away all of my bigger clothes as my big days are over – I’ll never return to that part of my life. I am now heading towards dropping a second dress size and, for the first time in years,I’ve started thinking about maintaining my current weight rather than trying to lose weight!

I’ve learnt that watching your portions, sensible eating and exercise go hand-in-hand when trying to lose weight. I don’t need medication to control things I can control with diet and exercise. I have made good lifestyle choices that will be with me always. The cycle of poor health stops now.”

Vanessa’s tips

  • Don’t be in denial. Acknowledge the issues you are struggling with and get help. There are doctors, dietitians and fitness experts qualified and passionate about helping you. The sooner you get to the bottom of what is going on, the sooner you can fix it, start enjoying life and gaining back your confidence.
  • Start today. Don’t put it off till Monday. If you start right now, you could be feeling better by Monday.
  • Don’t give up, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon a bit. Jump back on the wagon and carry on.
  • This is a lifestyle choice, so it can’t be so strict that you find it difficult. I highly recommend enlisting the help of a dietitian. I couldn’t have come this far without mine.
  • Start learning to accept compliments gracefully because a few weeks or months down the track, you are going to be getting plenty of them! Too often we turn them around and put a negative spin on it. That should stop, because if you make it far enough for people to notice and comment, you deserve the compliment!

About the condition

Many mothers experience a brief period of the blues after their baby is born, but some mums become seriously depressed in the months after giving birth. Symptoms will vary so talk to your GP if you have any concerns. The sooner this is diagnosed, the better so that treatment and support can be put in place.

HFG nutritionist comments

“A great result on the cholesterol – almost at the optimal guideline of less than 4.0mmol/L. Vanessa made some great changes on her own, but she gives us a good example of how sometimes getting expert help can take things to the next stage. It’s not a bad thing to see someone when you want to change your health – after all, experts are trained especially to help you break down the issues and put together a plan of attack.”

Health challenge: Depression

Melissa Jacoby-Croft, 36

Melissa’s story

“I was diagnosed with depression after my husband  passed away from bowel  cancer last year. Although it was a huge relief for me to see him finally let go, it was also very hard. I have had days where I couldn’t function. I shut down emotionally and I had no motivation to do anything.

Eventually, I realised that I didn’t want my husband’s death to be in vain. I started to make decisions about what I wanted out of life. I didn’t want to take anti-depressants, so instead I went to a naturopath and a chiropractor, and I decided to start exercising. I signed up with a personal training group. Exercising with them three times a week made all the difference. Without exercise, I don’t think I would have made it through.

It’s been several months now, and I’m doing much better. I’ve also changed my outlook on food and exercise. Now it’s about my sanity, my physical well-being and strength. I’m no longer ‘exercising’. I do activities I really enjoy, such as horse riding, running and boxing. I had literally been dieting for 20 years, too, and now, although I’m losing weight, it’s just a nice side effect. I’m listening to my body. Dieting is not the focus for me anymore – it’s about the long-term outlook.”

Melissa’s tips

  • Be kind to yourself. I had to put the right things in place to support my body and focus on myself in order to do that.
  • Surround yourself with good people who can help you through difficult times. This includes friends and family, but also includes building a team of people who can help you support yourself during this time.
  • Get physical. Activity helped me to naturally work through the stress and trauma.
  • Don’t be reluctant to seek professional counselling. It continues to help me reconcile how I’m feeling and gives me the tools to work through it.
  • Don’t judge yourself or how you are feeling. I experienced times of darkness, along with some very strange thoughts about where my life goes from here. I decided that I would just let myself feel and think whatever I needed, and not judge myself.

The changes I have made by building a strong healthy body and mind, along with the support of my family and friends, are helping me move forward. Without these support systems, I would be in a very different place.

About the condition

Depression can be triggered by a specific event or build up over time for no obvious reason. While everyone occasionally feels sad, a depressive disorder is more severe and longer-lasting, interfering with normal daily life. While depression is common, it is a serious disorder and most people need professional help to recover.

HFG nutritionist comments

“There’s plenty of research showing that exercise can help to overcome depression and keep it at bay, and Melissa gives us a real life example of making that work. Melissa has made some great and, most importantly, realistic lifestyle changes to help her through this tough time. And it’s great that she can now enjoy food and activities that will boost her overall well-being rather than having a narrow focus on dieting.”

Health challenge: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Elizabeth D, 77 (Christchurch)

Elizabeth’s story

“I had been treated for reflux for some years, but it wasn’t controlling my symptoms. My dietitian suggested I try a gluten-free diet. While helping significantly, the gluten-free diet didn’t completely solve the problem.

My dietitian told me about FODMAPs – a group of foods which causes symptoms in people sensitive to them (for more information on FODMAPs, see Are you intolerant to common foods?). For years I had known that eating peas, onions and beans made my symptoms worse, and all of these foods were on the FODMAPs list. I also found that pears and other fruits were on the list. Luckily there were still lots of other options!

I went to work and kept a food diary noting any symptoms. I diligently prepared all my food, omitting any foods containing gluten or FODMAPs. I found help on a coeliac website, in Healthy Food Guide and on other websites. I also found a local doctor who specialises in food allergies and intolerances.

I also found food shops where I could purchase gluten-free foods. Luckily, I can still eat nutritious meals, and the odd (gluten-free!) biscuit or cupcake. The gluten-free recipes in Healthy Food Guide have also been a big help. Life can begin again, at 70-plus, even with dietary restrictions!”

Elizabeth’s tips

  • Keep a daily food and symptoms diary for at least one month. Note everything that passes your lips – even medication. Food can sometimes take 48 hours or more to produce pain and flatulence, but you will soon see a pattern.
  • Don’t exclude any food groups unless proven it upsets your gut.
  • Research and seek help from qualified professionals.
  • Persevere, even if your health professional is unconvinced. Once you’ve been cleared of more serious illnesses arising from your symptoms, continue your investigations.

About the condition

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. Irritable bowel syndrome commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating gas, diarrhoea and constipation.

HFG nutritionist comments

“It’s very important not to exclude foods or food groups from your diet unnecessarily. If you seek professional help, you’re more likely to find the cause of your problems, and if you do need to exclude foods, you’ll know how to ensure you’re still getting all the nutrients you need.”

Health challenges: Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol

Margaret Scowen, 56 (Nelson)

Margaret’s story

“In May 2008, my health deteriorated. My doctor suspected glucose intolerance, and after having a blood test, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It was a huge shock, and I felt like crying all the time. But my family didn’t see how it could have been such a shock as I was obese, well over 40 years old and I had a family history of type 2 diabetes.

My doctor told me I needed to cut out all the sugar from my diet. Having a sweet tooth, this was extremely difficult. However, I knew I was at a greater risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

I had a brother who had experienced both. I knew he wouldn’t want me [to suffer the same fate]. If I wanted to see my grandchildren grow up, I knew I had to do something about it.

I first substituted sugar in my coffee and tea with artificial sweeteners. Then I enrolled in a course for people with this illness.

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I didn’t even know the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes! I learnt so much about diet and the importance of exercising. I was encouraged to join a walking group and other organised exercise. The walking group was great as I was able to meet others who were also keen to exercise and it was easier to stay motivated.

I also joined an aqua class at my local pool. This is a great way of exercising and having fun at the same time. Now, 10 months down the track, I have lost 27kg. My confidence is back and I feel so much better about myself. My diabetes is under control (thanks to adjusting my diet), my cholesterol is down (without the aid of medication) and I am eating healthily and enjoying food as well as exercising regularly and enjoying the fresh air at the same time. I no longer crave really sweet things. I also know that if I do eat something too sweet, I won’t feel good. So I just don’t go there anymore. It’s not worth it. I watch what I eat and I feel better than ever.

I no longer put butter on toast or potatoes. I don’t cook in fat, though I do use a little oil when cooking my fish. I am eating more salads than I used to, as well as fruit and vegetables. It was a real shame that it took such a huge wake-up call for me to do something about my weight, but I’m feeling so much healthier, and I have my confidence back, too.”

Margaret’s tips

  • Research your individual health condition and find out everything you can. The more knowledge you have about your condition, the better prepared you are to conquer it.
  • Seek support groups specific to your condition (or your goals) if you possibly can.
  • Above all, stick with what works best for you. It’s most definitely worth it.

About the condition

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or your body is less sensitive to insulin. Type 2 diabetes is lifestyle related (unlike type 1 diabetes), and is commonly managed with diet and exercise. However medication and/or insulin may also be required at some stage.

HFG nutritionist comments

“What’s great about Margaret’s diet is not only did she take a slow and steady approach – ensuring she could stick with her new lifestyle – but she also took the time to really understand her condition. This is so important to understanding why and how to make lifestyle changes – which helps them really stick.”

Health challenge: High cholesterol

Pamela Miller, 62 (Hastings)

Pamela’s story

“Last winter I was feeling tired, which isn’t normal for me. My doctor said it was just part of the  ageing process, but I was only 60! I saw another doctor, who talked me through my family’s history. This prompted a blood test, which revealed I had a cholesterol reading of 10.7 (more than double the recommended level).

I was put on medication straight away, which I didn’t like. The doctor also advised me to stop drinking alcohol for three months. I don’t drink much, but this was just before the Christmas and New Year season! In the end, I abstained for more than three months and I was quite happy about it (so was my husband, as he always had a sober driver!).

I was also advised to watch what I eat, especially my saturated fat intake. Fish became a regular part of our family meals, and we now eat a lot less meat and include more meat-free meals. My eating plan has changed to five small meals a day, which has made a big difference – the tiredness has gone.

I subscribe to Healthy Food Guide which has lots of recipes and invaluable information about products, as it can take a lot of time to read labels in the supermarket. Exercise is part of my life now, too. I walk every day, and if it’s too wet, I get my heart pumping by jogging on the spot, skipping in the garage or spring cleaning part of the house. Twelve months down the track, and I’ve had a follow-up blood test. To my delight, my cholesterol is now 3.7. What a difference diet and exercise can make to your whole well-being.”

Pamela’s tips

  • If you’re not feeling your happy, healthy self, start a diary on what you eat, drink and how you feel.
  • The life you live is in your hands, so take the opportunity to improve it. Seek advice from a nutritionist or your GP, and find out about your own family‘s medical history – it’s the first important step to improving your well-being.
  • Be prepared to have an open mind and change the way you think about what you eat and drink. The choices you make in your life are ones that not only affect you but also those who are connected to you: a better you is a happy you and those around you.
  • Healthy Food Guide has lots of helpful information every month. It is a great resource and there is encouragement, advice and answers to health questions.
  • We are all unique, and our individual needs require fine-tuning to get results.

About the condition

Cholesterol is a type of fat present in our blood, and in every cell in our bodies. HDL-cholesterol (‘good’ cholesterol) carries any excess cholesterol away from the blood to the liver, where it’s removed from the body. LDL-cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol) takes cholesterol from the liver and deposits it in our arteries where a large build-up can restrict blood flow. If this happens in the heart, it increases our risk of a heart attack and if it happens in the brain, it increases our risk of a stroke.

HFG nutritionist comments

“I love Pamela’s success story – it just shows you can make changes to your diet and overall lifestyle at any stage in your life and significantly improve your health.”

The bottom line

In different ways, these stories all demonstrate how small practical steps can make such a big impact on our lives and our health. Two key messages stick out: don’t be afraid to seek support (it’s out there in many different forms), and aim to get moving (it’s good for both the mind and the body).

 

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