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Coping With Prediabetes: The Emotional Fallout

For me, it's the truth.

For me, it's the truth.

Coping, Not Crushing

The title of this article is "Coping With Prediabetes" because that's where I'm at. I'm not crushing prediabetes. I'm not 100% confident that I possess the discipline and willpower it will take to reverse it. I'm not feeling better or more "beautiful" after cutting back on sugar. I feel like I want to ugly cry and then eat an Oreo Cakester to feel better.

If you've recently been diagnosed and you feel the same way, I hope that knowing this helps you to feel a bit better. You don't have to be "crushing it." Just coping is fine.

Emotions and Food

Food is not just something we physically need to survive, but it can also be very closely connected to our emotions. This is why, during a stressful day at work, we might turn to the box of Little Debbies rather than to the apple with peanut butter or a salad. I realize that salmon and greens is a better dinner choice for me, but fried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits is so much more appealing.

I think, maybe, if I were happier with some life circumstances (mainly concerning my career and finances), making the right meal and snack choices might be easier. I might not feel the need to soothe myself with food or consider food so heavily in things that bring me joy throughout the day. Whatever the case, food has come to be a highly emotional thing for me, and that's valid.

What I've Learned Since My Diagnosis

I want to share some of the things I have learned about making better choices after a prediabetes diagnosis. This article will not include recipes or meal plans to follow as you can probably find tons of those elsewhere with a quick internet search. I'm more concerned with the emotional aspect of the diagnosis.

It can feel depressing to know that you have to take away the sugar from your coffee. It can also feel lonely. People might unknowingly push treats at you—and it's true, eating a piece of birthday cake once in a while won't kill you and sometimes you have to do the best you can with limited choices at hand.

Having special dietary needs can feel alienating from the people around you, and it is worse if you use food to cope with stress. While I am not "crushing" this condition by any means, I think I have gotten better at making good choices, and I'd like to share my knowledge in the hope that it can help you do the same.

Coping With Shame

When the doctor explained the results of my blood test and that my sugar levels were in the prediabetic range (and that my cholesterol was high), the first unhelpful emotion that showed up was shame. Shame that I love sugar so much, that sometimes I love processed foods that are quick and easy to make. Shame that I like shortcuts because sometimes I am too drained to cook a "real" meal.

The cholesterol was another big bummer because I love eggs, biscuits, and all sorts of baked goods. Again, shame, because I have no business loving these things so much ... these things that I've always known aren't the best for me to eat, and yet I repeatedly eat them because I love them.

I've always carried a lot of shame around what I eat. When I used to work at an office, I would hide in the car or go somewhere else to have my lunch. Part of the reason was that I am an introvert, but another part of it was that I didn't want all my more health-conscious coworkers looking at my sandwich or pasta and secretly judging me. (Sometimes they would judge me out loud, though they did so teasingly. Still, I preferred avoiding it altogether.)

I remember going to another doctor (one that I liked better but who has since unfortunately moved away from the area) a couple of years ago, and the subject of junk food came up while we were discussing the state fair and "funnel cakes and all those other things we shouldn't eat." The doctor smiled and said gently, "Well, it's okay, we can eat them sometimes."

It might sound like a really simple exchange, but it was the first time someone in the health industry met the subject of junk food with a gentle sort of acceptance. I try to give myself that same acceptance on days when my food options and energy are limited. I still do the best I can with what I have, and some days, that can be enough.

Food is both social and emotional.

Food is both social and emotional.

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Coping With Guilt

Another unhelpful emotion that surfaced was guilt. Guilt that I know I need to watch my sugar, but I still put the Oreo Cakesters in my shopping cart or enjoy sweet wine from time to time. Guilt for all the times before I knew that I enjoyed a Mountain Dew with the voice in the back of my mind saying, "You shouldn't do that..." Guilt that maybe I caused my body to be this way by enjoying desserts and sweets so much. Ultimately, I did this to myself and now it is up to me to make better choices and reverse it.

I have heard it said before that guilt is a useless emotion, and I mostly agree with that. Guilt doesn't fix or undo wherever one went astray. People might apologize or behave differently out of guilt, but then, is it even a real apology from the heart? Guilt doesn't serve, whether we're talking about emotional wounds or food. I think maybe it is not always strong enough to create a lasting change in someone's behavior, or people might even feel they deserve to feel like crap, so they keep doing whatever it is that makes them feel that way.

I remember seeing a post in a diabetic forum from a lady who had gone to a social function where there weren't many healthy food options, and she felt really bad about her choices afterward—even though, from the way it sounded, she picked the "healthiest" things offered (a salad with too much mayo/cheese and a hot dog with no toppings or bun). Someone commented with the advice that she shouldn't beat herself up and she did the best she could with the options available, and some days are just like that.

There are other times that we might experience a lack of control over our food circumstances. I recently moved states, a stressful and long process where I did not always have the time or energy to cook or the means to even make something at home. Once I finally move into the new place, I am sure I will get into a routine and have things more figured out. Then there are some days where I really, really want an ice cream or something to the point where I cannot stop thinking about it no matter how hard I try to distract myself. Sometimes, I give in.

I think it is possible to manage cravings or even find alternatives that are still fun. I'm still learning, though, since I just got my results back about two months ago. And while I'm learning, I know I need to be easy with myself. Beating myself up about my choices on these days when I have less control is not productive, nor will it truly help me to make authentic, habit-forming good choices in the future.

Coping With Depression

To some, it might sound funny, the idea that one could actually get depressed about having to limit sugars or be extra careful about meal choices during the week. Low-sugar diets can be extremely limiting. Foods that we might think are healthy or that we don't think of as dessert foods—like flavored yogurt or milk—can have a significant amount of sugar. Some foods that aren't sweet can also convert to sugar (e.g., white rice) in the body.

When you've been used to eating whatever is around or if you prefer cow's milk to plant-based, it can be difficult to plan ahead as necessary and make so many changes at once. This can lead to feeling discouraged, and if you're already burned out with a lot of things going on in life, yes, it can make you feel depressed. I experienced this during the busiest parts of our move.

There were some days when I tried to avoid eating anything with sugar or that would convert to it, but then I was starving because there weren't many options, or I didn't have the time to go out and get something healthier. If you've ever been hangry, then you know how much this can affect your mood. I think it is much worse to starve or go hungry than it is to just eat something, anything you can find on hard days. Having a few bags of frozen vegetables and lean proteins that can be cooked quickly or microwaved on hand does help, but I didn't know what to do or how to plan ahead when all of this was so new.

If possible, it may be best not to try and change your entire diet all at once, but that is between you and your doctor. I found that gradual changes helped me with my moods and stress. For example, if you like flavored yogurt, try gradually switching over to plain Greek with real fruit for one week. Then focus on what you eat for lunch the next week, and so on. It takes time and thought to change habits that have been with us for so long.

I still have my Little Debbies and Oreos from time to time, but I'm much more conscientious about how much sugar I've had the rest of the day. Before, I could easily mow down a sugary soda, piece of cake, and coffee with cream and sugar all in the same day. Now I just pick one thing and let that be it for the day. At first, I hated it, but I think I am beginning to get used to it. I believe it is normal to still be a little sad, but it becomes less debilitating over time.

Coping Is Fine

I love to bake. Nothing quite compares to the smell of banana bread wafting throughout the house. I love baking a cake from scratch and feeding it to the people I love. Baking and love are highly connected for me. While I might use sugar to bake for others, I am getting used to baking with Stevia or Splenda for myself. Life is different now ... it takes some getting used to, but I am getting there. I am realizing that all the things I love about food and baking don't have to go away.

It can be hard to see that at first. Being diagnosed as prediabetic or diabetic can be shocking, and it can be overwhelming with all the dietary changes that you know need to happen. After the doctor visit, I got into my car, drove home, and ugly cried for a long time. I immediately went into obsessing over what I ate, and luckily my husband talked some sense into me (he has type 2 diabetes). The emotional aspect of this is just as hard as the physical, and it is important to honor and give validity to both. And remember, just coping for a while is fine. We have to do our best and accept our best in order to build better habits that will last.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Heidi Hendricks

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