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Real Women Series: Surviving diabetes and obesity and inspiring others to do the same

Elizabeth Mwanga knew she needed a lifestyle change even before she was hospitalized for diabetes complications. She was 31, 5'1" and weighed nearly 200 pounds. As she continued to receive treatment for diabetes, she was determined to get down to just one insulin shot per day.

Taking matters into her own hands, Mwanga tweaked her diet over several months, until her doctor told her she no longer needed to take insulin because her blood sugar was at a healthy level. Now, she shares the story of how she got her life back on track and how she maintains her healthy, med-free life as a diabetic.

Q. You were hospitalized for diabetes complications once you had reached a point that you were morbidly obese. Was there a point before all this that you knew you needed to make a massive lifestyle change? If so, what held you back?

A. Yes, I knew that I needed a lifestyle OVERHAUL about one year before I was hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes. I was nearly 200 pounds at that point and I was becoming more and more fatigued, experiencing dizzy spells, thirst and mood swings – things that I later found out were symptoms of diabetes.

What held me back was fear – fear of change, fear of failure (not being able to lose weight) and basically just not knowing how to get motivated enough to get started.

Q. When you decided to change your diet and exercise, where did you start?

A. Well, do keep in mind that because my situation was a bit more intense than most people who decide to lose weight, I was probably also more motivated than most … In the beginning I was going to at least four one-hour aerobics classes a week, and when I could stand it, I would walk the 2 1/2 miles home from the gym. I also made nutritional modifications.

Q. Did you come across any road blocks in this process? If so, what were they? How did you overcome them?

A. Yes, I did. And here's where my story gets interesting.

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I was being closely monitored by my endocrinologist and nutritionist, because my diabetes was such an extreme case (when I was diagnosed, my blood sugar was almost 10 times the normal range – and I was suffering from a severe complication of diabetes called diabetic ketoacidosis). They initially had me on a 'diabetic diet' which allowed me to eat refined carbohydrates – albeit in limited amounts. This diet was given to me because my condition was so severe that I was taking insulin four times daily in the beginning. When you take insulin that frequently, most endocrinologists will advise you to eat a portion of refined carbs with every meal, because they spike your blood sugar, and taking that much insulin usually means that if you do not eat enough carbs, sugar or are too physically active, you can … pass out, or even go into a coma.

I HATE needles and I was determined to at least get down to one insulin dosage a day, and with the diet plan I was given, not only was I not seeing the weight loss results I wanted/needed – I was also still stuck on the same amount of insulin. Argh! So, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and began tweaking my diet. I noticed that when I would test my blood sugar after I ate a meal with a refined carb portion, I would get a spike. So, I removed the carb portion and voila! – the blood sugar levels were reduced! I kept a log of my food intake and insulin dosage, and slowly removed all refined carbs from my diet – under the supervision of my doctor and nutritionist.

Eventually, an amazing thing happened. Every week when I sent over my blood sugar log, my physician would reduce my insulin dosage until one day, several months later, I was down to zero. I will never forget when my physician told me that I no longer needed to take insulin – as long as I kept on doing what I was doing (following the nutritional modifications and exercise plan).

I was so happy, but also cautious. I still held onto my insulin prescription – as I still do [to] this day – because I will ALWAYS be diabetic, and who knows when I will need to take medicine again to control my condition … But I am med-free today (since 2010) and am confident that I will continue on the path of good health. It is all due to the persistence and hard work I have put in over the years, because I had such a strong desire to take back my health and improve my quality of life.

Q. What did your average diet and fitness regimen look like?

A. When I was losing weight, my fitness regimen was as follows:

•    1 hour aerobic/cardio – 4-6 times per week (usually a step class or total body cardio workout)

•    Walk 2 miles 2-4 times per week

When I was losing weight my diet was as follows:

•    No refined carbs – no pasta, no bread, no rice, oatmeal, etc.

•    No fried foods

•    Typically 1500 calories or less per day

•    NO refined sugars

Q. Do you still maintain the same level of control over your diet and exercise? Have you slackened from it at all? If so, what do you do to get back on track?

A. For the most part, I have control over my food and fitness regimen – which is why I have been able to maintain the weight loss for three years. However, I do get tempted – after losing ALL of that weight and keeping it off for so long, sometimes I figure I deserve a treat – and I am right! But now my treats are a lot healthier.

When I feel myself craving certain foods I make what I call my 'Fake Out Foods' – foods that hit the same flavor notes as the junk food I used to eat.

Q. What is your main goal for WINNING DIABETICS™?

A. I am developing the WINNING DIABETICS™ brand of products and services to offer practical, healthy and affordable solutions for diabetes management to the international diabetes population. The WINNING DIABETICS™ brand will include an online social health network and blog, a mobile application, podcasts, a cooking show web series, diabetic cookbooks, branded merchandise and workshops.

Q. What exactly does it consist of? What type of feedback have you gotten for it?

A. Currently, I have soft-launched WINNING DIABETICS™ on Twitter and Facebook, where I post/tweet daily food and fitness tips that I have incorporated into my life and have been instrumental in my diabetes and weight loss successes. Every Friday I post a recipe… [from] the WINNING DIABETICS™ e-cookbook, which will be available on the website, which will be launched by the end of 2012.

I have received overwhelming support from the online diabetic community. People especially are appreciative of my food tips and recipes – mainly because food is such a big issue with diabetics.

Q. If you met someone in a situation similar to yours before you started your health and fitness journey, what would you recommend as the first step?

A. If they are diabetic, the first step is to get a FULL PHYSICAL which includes extensive blood work, because often times diabetics have other health conditions that they need to take care of.

Second, immediately eliminate refined sugars from your diet. And this isn't just for diabetics – this is for EVERYONE! Refined sugar causes health problems … it weakens your immune system and it tends to make people put on weight. As soon as I eliminated refined sugar from my diet, I began losing weight.

Additionally, I would advise people to also drastically reduce refined carbs as well – yes, that means pasta, bread and rice. It is really not that hard, especially if you start experimenting with new healthy ingredients and recipes … I used to love junk food, now I am IN LOVE with vegetables.

But it's not just about eating healthier – if you want to get healthier, you must exercise as well. Start off with at least 15 minutes a day of cardio – walking, jogging, running up and down the stairs, jumping jacks – whatever. We all have 15 minutes a day. Yes, we ALL do. It's really not that hard to get started, and once you begin to see and feel the results you will kick yourself for not starting sooner!

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Lauren Stewart
By: Lauren Stewart

Lauren Stewart is a freelancer writer from Michigan. She enjoys writing about beauty, health and fitness! She is passionate about learning new ways to take control of her health and wellness and is a makeup and skincare junkie! You can contact her by emailing