Jeff O’Connell was the picture of health. Tall and thin, the Men’s Health writer never thought he’d have to worry about Type 2 diabetes, a disease that seemed to only afflict the overweight. But his father was diabetic, and O’Connell would be too if he didn’t act quickly. Sugar Nation follows the author’s 18 month-long quest to improve his health sans medication through exercise and a low-carb diet. Here, he tells us about the unexpected coincidences that led to his recovery.
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Would you have been tested for diabetes if your father hadn’t already been diagnosed?
For sure, yeah. I had gone to the doctor because I was feeling really sluggish and kind of out of sorts, just for a general check-up. Then through a bizarre coincidence I heard a week later that my father had lost his leg. We’d been estranged for 20 years.
A week after that I went back to get the results that had been done two weeks prior, and the doctor pointed out that my blood sugar was well into prediabetes. He would have called me back regardless, but my reaction to it was a lot different because I’d just heard about my father’s predicament. I think I reacted in a much more aggressive, proactive way because of that.
Did it also help that you wrote for a health magazine?
The fact that I was on staff at Men’s Health at the time was another huge coincidence that most people wouldn’t have the advantage of. I remember I went back from the doctor’s appointment, and there was literally an article in my inbox about lifestyle antidotes to diabetes, just through pure happenstance, and I’m just scrolling through it, looking at all these tips, none of which I had heard from my doctor 20 minutes prior. I think the outcome would have been much different for me had I not.
Why don’t doctors discuss nutrition with their patients?
In the book I talk about how very little training they receive in nutrition in medical school. It’s shocking. I think it’s maybe one dedicated class at most. It’s completely de-emphasized. Why it is, that’s good question...With cardiovascular issues I think nutrition plays a huge roll, but with diabetes it’s really front and center, where your diet is literally causing the problem, so if the doctor isn’t trained in that I don’t know how he’s supposed to deal with it effectively.
How is your diet different from the Atkins diet?
I don’t dismiss fruit quite as readily as Atkins devotees do—they just lump fruit in with other sugars and say avoid it completely. I think when you are eating a whole fruit you’re also getting a lot of fiber and a lot of other chemicals that are healthy for you. I don’t think you can get sugar in the amounts that come in a soft drink or a packaged snack food from fruit. And because I work out I need a little bit of sugar. I do need some fuel.
I also don’t have a complete disregard for saturated fat, in part because I do have a family history of heart disease. Their take is that it doesn’t matter. Fat is good for you, basically. I try to get lean cuts of meat and things like that just to cover my bases. If saturated fat is a problem like some people think, I don’t want to be prone to that problem.
How do you work out?
I start off with 15 or 20 minutes on the treadmill, for example, which most people think of as a warm up, but I get my complete cardio just in that 20-minute period, alternating really intense sprinting with periods of rest, so I’ll run like a bat out of hell for a minute, then rest for a minute and then I’m warmed up for my weight training.
So maybe I’ll hit two body parts after that, like chest and back. The next day I might do legs. So I sort of have a body builder’s weight-training split, and I pair that with intense interval cardio. I try to do that six or seven days a week. None of these workouts are much longer than 30 to 35 minutes, so I’ll hit it hard, hit it fast and then get out of the gym. I think this is the best way to do it when you’re diabetic.
Are you off your medication?
Absolutely. The blood pressure medication I used to be on, I threw that away and definitely no diabetes drugs. I feel like if I train consistently throughout the rest of my life and if I eat the way I should be, I should never have to use that stuff. It shows the power of exercise and lifestyle change. It can really work wonders for somebody.