Tom Watson: How my father’s death almost brought my Type 2 diabetes back

It had been a relief to leave the artery-hardening stress of dealing with the likes of trades unionist Len McCluskey. Yet when I stood down as an MP in 2019, I didn’t have a job and didn’t have a plan. I’d not thought about what I was giving up – a close and supportive group of friends and colleagues. Or all those painfully worked out routines and habits; the external scaffolding required to traverse the many demands of a health journey fell apart.

My morning routine had been robust: weigh-in, monitor blood pressure, brew coffee, take blood sugar and blood ketone levels, trainers on for a run. The practice had been the axle of my daily life, but it collapsed when I left Westminster. I’d got everything just right in my London flat – gym kit in precisely the right drawer, the gratitude journal opened on the right page on my desk.

But my new home in Worcestershire didn’t have a place to store my two bikes. Those hard-won habits disappeared. I was starting again in a shared house of demanding teenagers; God bless them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind them “borrowing” the batteries from the kitchen scales to replace the empty ones in the Xbox controller, but it was another new hurdle.

In hindsight, I should have known that I’d not reached a peak but a plateau. I had more mountains to climb to maintain good health: Covid, three lockdowns, and family bereavement hit me hard. In November 2020, I was running five kilometres nearly every day. I’m not sure if I even walked 5k in a single day the following November.

Even with these exercise setbacks, I still maintained a diet of nutritionally-dense food. I no longer test my blood sugars every day, but I occasionally wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to make sure they’re still in a healthy range. For Type 2 diabetics, how high your blood sugar spikes is essential to know. Using a CGM is how I learnt that a lockdown dalliance with homemade sourdough bread was not a good idea. The spike on the CGM was just too high for too long for me to continue perfecting the art of baking.

Of course, I knew that if I returned to the bad old ways of sweets, beer and sleep deprivation, my blood sugar levels would creep back up and I’d be ill again. Yet a hastily-assembled home office less than 10 feet away from the fridge brought fresh challenges. I’d stupidly interviewed cheesemonger extraordinaire Ned Palmer for my Persons of Interest podcast. Ned’s enthusiasm for cheese is catchy. Before long, I was ordering Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese by the truckle load. Even though I’ve not scoffed a KitKat for more than four years, devouring chunks of cheese, micro-sliver by micro-sliver, takes its toll on the waistline.

For the first time in three years, my weight started to creep up – just when all the gyms shut their doors.

Luckily for me, I found a copy of Dr Jen Unwin’s book, Fork in the Road, about carbohydrate and sugar addiction. Now I understood what was happening. While Percy Pigs are dead to me, and I no longer steal my children’s Easter eggs (I describe myself as a reformed sugar addict), Dr Unwin explained that it is not unusual for her patients to replace sugar with cheese as their addiction.

Initially, I got my health back by significantly reducing carbohydrates from my diet. But many people who have stunning weight loss success on keto, or very low carbohydrate diets, often stall when they become too reliant on dairy products. Keto advocates are happy to have mugs of coffee topped up with cream. Before long, you can end up swilling it directly from the plastic pot. And even though keto dieters are not obsessed with calorie counting, calories still matter.

Having made the connection, I reminded myself just why I had worked so hard to lose weight in the first place: it’s hard to describe just how much I don’t want to be 22 stones again. It would be humiliating to put myself back on the High and Mighty triple XL mailing list. So when the gyms re-opened and I cancelled the cheese subscriptions, everything was back on track.

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