‘I was a fat kid,” said Helene Meckler of Delmar. Her parents were overweight, and the family’s lifestyle was sedentary for the most part. Her father was a baker, so there were always bread and goodies in the house.
Over her 56 years, Meckler tried without success to lose weight and keep it off. Her mother dropped her off at a Weight Watchers meeting for the first time when she was 14 years old. Once, she did a protein-modified fast, mixing powders with boiling water for “soup” as meals. She participated in a weight loss program at UCLA.
“I lost 60 pounds in five months and practically lost my mind in the process,” she said. The weight came back, with interest, she said. “It didn’t really teach me anything.”
Then one day in the fall of 2010, that changed. Her doctor told her she had Type 2 diabetes. Meckler was now one of the 26 million Americans, including 1.33 million New Yorkers, with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meckler’s diagnosis scared her. She knew what could come with unchecked diabetes. As a nurse, she had worked in the operating room during amputations done on diabetics and the insertion of kidney shunts because of the disease. “I knew what the long-term possibilities could be if I didn’t take care of myself,” she said. Other complications that can result from diabetes include heart disease, stroke, hypertension, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system diseases, and dental problems. In addition, she didn’t want to be on medication for diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is different from Type 1 diabetes, in which the body does not make insulin. In Type 2, the body has become “insulin resistant,” meaning it does not properly use the insulin it created. Type 2 can, in some cases, be controlled or even reversed through changes in diet and exercise, changes that trigger the body to start using its insulin again.
In September 2010, Meckler started Weight Watchers and began keeping a food diary, something she considers very important in losing weight and maintaining the weight loss. “It makes you accountable.”
Meckler is strict with herself in what she eats. She weighs and measures her portions and makes sure that she has a carbohydrate-balanced diet, not shunning carbohydrates completely, but limiting her intake of them to a healthful amount. She’ll bring skim milk with her when she goes out to dinner to have in her coffee, rather than cream or half and half. Moderation is her mantra.
Besides the changes in her diet, exercise — something she hadn’t done before the fall of 2010 — was key in losing weight. Just walking into the gym at first was intimidating. “You have no idea what it’s like being a fat woman who has never worked out, never been in shape,” she said. “You see all these women who are all fit and can do everything and have these cute outfits, and then there’s you,” she said.
She felt as if all eyes were on her. “And then you realize that nobody is looking at you and they’re pretty impressed that you come,” she said.
A few months later, in January 2011, Meckler signed up for the Freihofer’s Run for Women that would take place in June. She did a “couch to 5K” training program, and ran the race in 39 minutes and 17 seconds, a statistic that she readily recalls. “That’s how the whole running bug started,” she said. Now, she runs races regularly and has completed six half-marathons, something Meckler said she didn’t think she could do “in a million years.”
Meckler deliberately plans her exercise, which is the key to doing it consistently, and she makes no excuses for not exercising. “We can find all kinds of time to Facebook, watch TV or go shopping,” she said. There is definitely time for exercise.
Meckler works with strength and conditioning specialist Brian Matthews at Phelps Gym in Menands. Going slow was important, Matthews said. He sees a lot of people who are enthusiastic about exercise when they start, but it doesn’t last. “They’ll say, ‘I want to go five days a week, two hours a day,’ and what ends up happening is that they get burned out or overtrained,” Matthews said.
The biggest factor is consistency, he said. Meckler meets with Matthews twice a week, weight lifting and doing soft tissue training as well as doing a combination cardio-strength class each week. Meckler’s drive is a big part of her success, Matthews said.
Meckler said that the changes came not only in her body’s shape and weight, which went from a size 20 to a size 8, with a total weight loss of 72 pounds by February of this year. “Weight loss not only changes you physically, it changes you emotionally — emotionally for the best,” she said. She feels better about herself, and not just because of her appearance, but because of how the weight loss has affected her physical health.
Through diet and exercise, Meckler has dropped her hemoglobin A1c levels from 6.78 percent to 5.3 percent. The hemoglobin A1c test is one that doctors use to determine the average amount of sugar in a person’s blood. Normal levels are between 4 percent and 5.6 percent. Levels from 5.7 to 6.4 percent mean a person is at risk for developing diabetes, and 6.5 percent is considered diabetic.
There were other benefits, too. Her cardiologist said that she cut her risk factors for heart disease in half. She’s also been able to eliminate a whole host of medications that she was taking prior to losing weight.
While Meckler said that her doctor told her she’s no longer diabetic, Joanne DeNovio, manager of Ellis’ Diabetes Care, warns that once someone has the diagnosis of diabetes, it is always there. A person has to be able to sustain the lifestyle changes he has made.
“Diabetes is a lifelong disease, and the changes have to be hard-wired if we’re going to keep the disease at bay, and therein lies the challenge,” DeNovio said.
Meckler continues to attend Weight Watchers meetings, even though she has met her goal weight. She goes for the support.
DeNovio emphasizes the need for people with a Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes diagnosis to have support systems in place to help them implement and maintain behavior changes.
“My experience has shown that it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to do it alone,” DeNovio said.
Meckler has had a team of people. In addition to her personal trainer and Weight Watchers, she worked with certified diabetes educator Lynne Sutton of The Center for Diabetes Education at The Endocrine Group in Albany, and she had three friends who were her “cheerleaders,” waiting each week for a text about her weight loss status.
She stresses that she never says that she is “on a diet.”
“If you’re on a diet, you go off a diet,” she said. “It’s making changes.”
Meckler readily admits how difficult it is to lose weight. “There are going to be bumps in the road, and it’s real easy to give up,” she said. There were many frustrating times, but she didn’t let them derail her.
Today’s culture doesn’t help, either, said Dr. Jennifer Lindstrom, medical director for nutrition and bariatrics at Albany Medical Center. “Our environment is one that promotes weight gain — the obesogenic environment,” she said. People have lower levels of activity and a plethera of high fat and sugary foods available.
To counter that, however, is a whole array of programs to support those with diabetes to make the lifestyle changes that can dramatically improve their health. DeNovio notes that the Capital Region is “saturated with top-notch diabetes education programs” and a host of experienced diabetes educators. In addition, insurance companies and Medicare pay for diabetes education. She encourages people to ask their doctors to refer them to a diabetes education program.
Yet with all the help readily available, only a small percentage of people with diabetes take advantage of the education, DeNovio said. This is, in part, because it doesn’t interfere with people’s lives until it becomes severe. “You can’t feel when your blood sugar is too high or a little high,” she said.
Acting early, as Meckler did, is important. While it’s good to make a change at any point, Lindstrom said, people have a much better chance of getting rid of diabetes if they make changes early on. When A1c levels reach 12 percent or 13 percent, the point where a Type 2 diabetic requires insulin, it takes a great deal more work to make changes.
Meckler indeed leads a changed life, and she calls the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes “a blessing in disguise.” “I will never be the person I was before physically or emotionally,” she said. “I’ve never been this happy, this fulfilled in my entire life.”