It is possible to overcome common health conditions without resorting to surgery or medication – and our expert has found six readers who have done just that; using methods that can work for you, too.
From the expert
Bobbie Crothers, B.Sc (Nutrition) (Hons), APD
Pick up any magazine or turn on the TV, and it’s no surprise to see amazing, too-good-to-betrue stories of people who have cured themselves of disease or shed excess weight. They’re great motivators – it’s very inspiring when we hear about the success of others, don’t you think?
Sadly, not all ‘success stories’ are really that successful. For example, people who have lost a lot of weight using extreme, unhealthy measures usually end up regaining those kilos – and then some. While stories of those who ‘cure’ themselves of disease without any scientific explanation are wonderful to read, it doesn’t mean they’re going to work for the rest of us! In fact, they can be downright dangerous. Of course there are also genuinely positive success stories out there, and – we’ve found six of them! These readers are the ‘real deal’ – they used healthy, scientifically approved methods (not the fad diets) – to reach their goals. Read on to find out how and be inspired to better health yourself!
Melissa Jacoby-Croft, 36, beat depression with exercise
“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’d have 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 antidepressants, so instead I went to a naturopath and a chiropractor, and 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, like 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.”
- Be kind to yourself. I had to put the right things in place to support by 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.
Melissa has made some great and, most importantly, realistic lifestyle changes to get her through this rough time. Research has shown exercise can be beneficial when it comes to beating depression. It’s great that she sees exercise as a long-term lifestyle change, rather than a short-term solution or a quick fix. Great work, Melissa!
Type 2 diabetes / high cholesterol
About type 2 diabetes: 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 can be treated with diet and exercise.
Margaret A, 56, fought type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol
“In May 2008, my health deteriorated. My doctor suspected I was glucose intolerant, 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 that I was at a greater risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. Given that I had a brother who had experienced both, I knew he wouldn’t want either one to occur. I also wanted to see my grandchildren grow up, so knew I had to do something about it.
First, I cut out the sugar in my coffee and tea, substituting it with artificial sweeteners. Second, I enrolled in a course for people with this illness. I didn’t even know the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes! I learnt so much about diet, as well as 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 27kgs. 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); I am eating healthily and enjoying it and exercising regularly and enjoying the fresh air at the same time. I no longer crave the 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 any more. It’s not worth it.
I now watch what I eat and 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'smost definitely worth it.
What’s great about Margaret’s diet is not only the fact that she took a slow and steady approach – which ensured that she could stick with her new lifestyle – but that 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.
Obesity / high blood pressure / post-natal depression
Vanessa Browne, 40, battled all three conditions at once
"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 the PND, get off the medication, get on a program to lose the weight and get fit again. Beating the 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 learned that what I thought I was doing completely right, I was only doing 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; nothing has been banned – I can still enjoy a glass of wine or takeaways on the weekend, 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 program for me. I have dropped 11 kilos, 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 learned 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 that 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.”
- 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. You could be feeling better by Monday, so start now.
- 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!
Vanessa made some really great changes, but the best thing she did was to seek the help of an expert. 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!
About the condition: Cholesterol is a type of fat present in our blood, and in every cell in our bodies. High cholesterol may leave fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits make it difficult for enough blood to flow through to your arteries, resulting in your heart not getting enough oxygen-rich blood, which increases the risk of a heart attack. Decreased blood flow to your brain, from clogged veins, can cause a stroke.
Pamela Miller, 62, had a cholesterol reading double the recommended level
“Last winter I was feeling tired, which isn’t normal for me. My doctor said it was just part of the aging process, but I was only 60! I headed off to see 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 (nearly 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 longer than three months, and was quite happy about it (so was my husband, as he knew 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 eat now 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. Now, 12 months down the track, I had a follow-up blood test and 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 proper 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 is there to encourage, advise and find answers if you have questions.
- We are all unique, and our individual needs require fine-tuning to get results.
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 be successful. For more hearthealthy ideas, see this month’s meal planner.
Anorexia / bulimia
Sue*, 22, battled both eating disorders for five years
*Name has been changed
"I suffered from an eating disorder for over five years, moving between periods of anorexia and bulimia. All through my final years of school, university and starting my new career as a health professional, I kept my secret from everyone, even my fiancé.
It all became too much when my health started to dramatically deteriorate. I hit an all-time low in my body weight, my hair started falling out, my periods stopped, my teeth were a mess and I was constantly exhausted. After passing out numerous times, and being told by my doctor that my heart was weakening, I realised I needed help. If I didn’t stop now, the damage may become irreversible.
I finally told my family, who were shocked but very supportive. I needed to retrain my mind and my behaviours, but years of abuse to my body meant I had a distorted view of normality. I had no idea what a normal diet looked like, what normal portion sizes were and which foods were ‘ok’ to eat. I became a devoted reader of Healthy Food Guide, and with its help, particularly the meal plans and the recipes in each issue, I learned what constituted a normal, healthy, well-balanced 8500KJ diet. I followed the menu plans, used the recipes and retrained my brain.
I am still working hard and have a few more kilos to go until I reach my goal weight, but I can’t thank my family enough for helping me to path of recovery. I am happier and healthier than I have ever been, my heart is recovering, I follow a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, including the occasional sweet treat and cosmopolitan, and I can still have children one day."
- A problem shared is a problem halved. Confide in those closest to you, your family, your partner or your close friends. Never think you will be judged, they will just want to help and want to support you in every way they can.
- Small steps add up to big leaps – trying a food I’d avoided for years, cooking porridge on milk rather than water, eating a slice of birthday cake. Everything adds up to give you the confidence to make additional changes.
- Many hands make light work. Find a dietitian and a psychologist you like; these people are essential in developing a treatment plan and assisting you on your road to recovery.
- Brain training. Your head and your heart need to be re-educated to help you understand and see exactly what goes into a normal diet and what it looks like. Meal plans are so beneficial in teaching you what a healthy, balanced and adequate diet looks like and helps you to adopt healthy eating patterns.
- Don’t quit if you fall at the first (or second, or third) hurdle. Recovery is a long process, it will not always be smooth sailing. Understanding that you will have setbacks and bad days is essential to developing strategies on how to cope with them. I still have bad days, but it is the support of my family and fiancé that pull me through, and now those bad days are few and far between.
Putting on weight can be just as hard as losing weight. And in situations like this one, it is very important to seek professional help and have people around you as a support system. Sometimes our weight issues are far more than just food issues.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
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.
Elizabeth D, 77, wasn’t diagnosed with IBS until age 70
“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. She helped me get started and after a week or so, there was definite improvement. I kept a food diary and this helped me immensely. But the gluten-free diet, while helping significantly, didn’t completely solve the problem.
My dietitian told me about FODMAPs – a group of foods containing long-chain saccharides, which causes symptoms in people sensitive to them (see our article on FODMAPs: The latest food intolerances: Are they causing your bloating?). 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. But I also found that pears (my favourite winter fruit) and many other fruits were on the list of culprits. Luckily there were still lots of other options! I went to work, keeping a food diary and 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 many other websites. And I 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 biscuit or cupcake (all gluten-free!). The gluten-free recipes in HFG have been a big help and when I need advice, it is freely given. Life can begin again, at 70+, even with dietary restrictions!”
Elizabeth ’s tips
- Keep a daily food and symptoms diary for at least a month. Put down anything that goes into your mouth – even medication and water. 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 you can prove 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, and no further help is forthcoming, keep on with your investigations. I found the internet to be a great help, as long as you don’t take everything published online as gospel!
Following on from Elizabeth’s tips, it is very important not to exclude foods or food groups from your diet without the guidance of a dietitian. If you seek help, you are more likely to find the cause of your problems.