Living with a morbidly obese junk-food addict can’t have been easy. A couple of years before my diabetes diagnosis, I’d struck up a relationship with Steph – she worked for a trade union – and we’d moved into a terraced house in the West Midlands town of Cradley Heath. I would catch the train up from Westminster most Thursday evenings (I often had constituency duties the following day) and, more often than not, Steph would drive over to collect me from the station since the half-mile, seven-minute walk was way beyond my capabilities.
My weight frequently brought about some awkward moments in our household. I remember breaking numerous G Plan dining room chairs, the wooden frames buckling and splintering under the strain of my 22-stone bulk. Once, to my eternal shame, I even cracked the bath, the plastic
base caving in as I attempted to haul myself out. Steph had a healthy relationship with food, and had generally tried her best to curb my wayward appetite, but her efforts were often in vain. She would despair as the kitchen cupboards were emptied within days of the Tesco ‘big shop’, shaking her head as she watched me demolish a jumbo bar of Dairy Milk or an entire tube of cheese and onion Pringles. ‘Tom, can’t you just have a couple of chunks instead of the whole bar?’ she’d ask, but I’d usually be too busy filling my face to answer. For me, wolfing down the entire block of chocolate was a physical and physiological compulsion: I couldn’t not eat it all. I continued to be troubled by this lack of restraint, though, and would often ask Steph to hide my sweet and savoury treats so as to remove the temptation. Her most effective hiding place, I later learned, was at the bottom of a stack of saucepans.
I also remember her once encouraging me to bake some ‘guilt-free’ flapjacks – made with oats, nuts and coconut oil – to use as an alternative snacking option. I ended up devouring all eight of them in one go (my mindset was ‘but they’re good for me, right?’) and afterwards I felt so nauseous that I almost threw up.
My brazen eating habits continued when we stepped out of the front door, too. If we ever visited our local McDonald’s Drive-Thru, I’d order two cheeseburgers
instead of one Big Mac, purely because they were easier to grasp as I scoffed them at the wheel (waiting until we got home to eat them was never an option). Once, Steph met me for lunch in a city centre café, only to find me staring blankly at my laptop while helping myself to some leftover rainbow cake that another customer had abandoned on the adjacent table.
‘Tom!’ she’d hissed, as a passing waitress looked on disdainfully. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’
‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry,’ I’d replied, aghast, before explaining that my cake-pilfering had been utterly involuntary. I’d genuinely not known what I was doing. Recalling this faux pas would always make me wince with embarrassment.
Throughout our time together, such lapses in concentration were commonplace. Steph would often remark that I seemed dizzy and disorientated or, as she put
it, somewhat ‘disengaged from the present’. She would talk about me ‘zoning out’ of conversations, so much so that if she had a list of questions to ask me, she would pose the most important one first, because by the third I’d have totally switched off. Neither of us knew it then, of course,
but this detached listlessness was most likely a result of diabetes-related hypoglycaemia (commonly referred to as a ‘hypo’), triggered by a sharp drop in my blood sugar levels. My relationship with food improved marginally, however, once I’d received my T2D diagnosis, and once Dr Nazeer had referred me on to the NHS nutritionist. Urged to follow the Eatwell Plate guidelines, and keen to do things by the book, I adhered to much of her advice. I began to monitor my portion sizes, measuring out my carbohydrates using small kitchen scales like she’d suggested. I remember, at breakfast time, carefully weighing out 20g of dry porridge oats – which probably equated to a fifth of my usual supersized serving – and wondering how on earth that was going to sustain me until lunchtime. More often than not it didn’t, and I’d find myself indulging in elevenses, and loading up with a croissant or two. Furthermore, I tried to limit my consumption of sugary foods, cutting back on my favourite cakes and biscuits. I also stocked up my kitchen cupboards with fresh, low-calorieproduce and – as the nutritionist had suggested – rustling up the occasional home-made meal instead of relying on a takeaway. I was a fairly proficient cook when I put my mind to it, although I always tended to opt for super-elaborate Yotam Ottolenghi or Madhur Jaffrey offerings, which invariably required a long list of exotic ingredients, and commandeered two hours of my time. The end result was usually delicious (Steph was very impressed) but I really should have focused my energy on building a repertoire of simple, easy-to-prepare everyday meals, in order to bring more consistency to my dining habits. With me, though, it was all or nothing.
Despite implementing these changes, and despitetrying to follow the standard guidelines, my weight seemed to plateau rather than plummet and, disappointingly, I continued to experience overwhelming carb and sugar cravings. My willpower wobbled and wavered – typically when I was in my London flat, following a long day at work – and I’d often end up yielding to a late-night toasted sandwich and a bottle of Fanta Orange, before nodding off on the sofa. One positive development, though, was the emergence of a certain mindfulness with regard to my eating, and a nascent realisation of the relationship between food and physiology. Although I was still unable to resist the temptation of that toastie and that fizzy drink, I felt myself becoming more aware of my actions, and more conscious of how certain foodstuffs affected me. With this, though, came a certain frustration at my powerlessness. It seems I had identified carbs and sugar as the enemy, but hadn’t yet found the ammunition to vanquish them.