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Diabetes runs in my family, but it's not going to win!

Posted Mar 04 2009 11:25pm

A personal experience of overcoming Type II diabetes, by JoAnne Zoller Wagner:

It’s hard for me to believe now, but I never thought I would get diabetes.  Two sisters and a brother had Type 2 diabetes, but somehow I believed that since I had never reached 200 pounds, it wouldn’t happen to me–but it did.  On March 22, 2007, when my doctor told me that I had diabetes, I was in shock.  I knew that it was a serious disease, because four years earlier my oldest sister had died from diabetes complications-end stage renal failure and congestive heart failure-at the age of 58.  I was 53.  Before I even left the doctor’s office, something had clicked in me, creating a firm resolve to do everything possible to optimize my health and live as long as I could.

Even though I was determined to do something, whatever it took, I needed to know what to do!  First, I called my other sister and my brother who already had Type 2 diabetes and asked for advice.  Subscribe to Diabetes Forecast, my sister told me.  My brother tried to recall everything he had done to get his weight down when he was first diagnosed.  Eat lean, exercise, avoid sugar, he counseled.  I was so glad to have siblings who could share this journey with me!  But I needed an action plan, starting the next day.  I decided to start cooking out of the Month of Meals cookbooks which I bought from the ADA when I realized that I was pre-diabetic, but had not followed closely.  I also decided to stop eating traditional desserts, because they were making me sick.

As I followed those cookbooks, I began to see patterns for building healthy meals.  Meanwhile I began to read-voraciously!  I read many books about diabetes from the public library, and several books from the ADA.  I shifted my diet over to lean meats, fish, legumes, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.  My greatest delight in this shift was re-discovering the pleasures of fruit!  It was almost as if I had forgotten how delicious and pleasurable fruit could be.  I began to cook my own healthy foods on a regular basis and took my lunch to work in Coleman coolers so that I would not be tempted to eat the unhealthy foods in the teacher’s lounge.

My husband was supportive of my efforts, and joined me in my near daily 45 minute evening walks in the neighborhood.  We also attended a weekly Iyengar yoga class which lowered my stress and toned my muscles.  By March 2008, my A1C had plummeted from 6.9 to 6.1, and my fasting blood glucose was down to 88.  I was frustrated, however, because my cholesterol had steadily climbed to 198.  I could see the possibility of having to take cholesterol-lowering medicine if this continued, and wanted to avoid that.

JoAnne visiting with her older sister

JoAnne visiting with her older sister

I was at a loss for what to do, but suspected that maybe cutting out dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, which comes from meat, butter, and cheese would help.  My dietitian was accepting of this possibility and pointed me to the Neal Barnard website  I read about his 2006 scientifically controlled experiment in which the diabetics who ate a vegan diet experienced tremendous improvements in their blood sugar and cholesterol.  I was not ready to adopt a vegan diet, however, so I decided to try a low-fat, low-sugar, high fiber vegetarian diet.  I joined an on-line forum of vegetarians and vegans and found many more resources, such as the McDougall website,, and recipe websites such as and

Meanwhile, I kept reading.  The most influential and informative books I read include: Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes , The McDougall Program for a Healthy Heart,The China Studyby Collin T. Campbell , andDiet, Life Expectancy and Chronic Disease by Gary E. Fraser.  The latter is a review of 40 years of studies of Seventh Day Adventists and other vegetarians which reveals impressive health advantages of vegetarians over non-vegetarians.

Imagine my elation when in June 2008, after only 3 months of eating fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and low fat dairy products, my cholesterol dropped 40 points to 158!  My LDL cholesterol was only 99, NORMAL!  And my A1C held steady at a good 6.1.  AND I had lost another 8 pounds, for a total of 25 pounds lost!

In September 2008, I underwent a three-hour blood glucose tolerance test.  All of my glucose readings - before, during, and after - were well within the normal range!  I was so proud.  My doctor said that only five percent of patients control their diabetes through diet and exercise and without medication.  I think that I am one of those five percent primarily because I witnessed my oldest sister’s early death from diabetes and it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t happy.  When I hear someone say, “I’m going to eat what I want, so that at least I’ll die happy,” I tell them that if they eat whatever they want, they’ll die early and probably not very happy.  The complications of diabetes are serious, disfiguring, painful, and very sad.

Although I have successfully “reversed” my diabetes, I am quite aware that it is lurking in the background, ready to begin progressing again if I return to my old unhealthy habits.  The hardest change for me wasn’t changing the foods I eat, believe it or not.  I don’t really miss meat or desserts, and I sincerely enjoy the healthy low-fat vegetarian foods I do eat.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I eat more now than I did before, so I rarely go hungry.


The hardest part of the change to a healthy lifestyle was making a commitment to cook on a regular basis. I have found that in order to have the low sugar, low fat, low sodium, high fiber foods that I now need and enjoy, I have to devote some time each weekend to cooking. Our restaurant and food industry is moving forward, but not fast enough for my immediate needs!  I make big batches of two main meal entrees so that I have easy access to good food during the week, especially at work.

Although it may seem to be a burden to have to plan and cook my meals and carry them to work, mostly I am very grateful that I could improve my health by my own behaviors rather than become dependent on medicines, which always have side effects, some of which are pretty scary.  Since my diagnosis, I discovered by talking to my aunts and uncles that three of my four grandparents also had diabetes.  My grandfather died at age 59 from diabetes complications, when I was only three years old.  Back in the 1950s, there were so few resources and so little knowledge about how diabetics could improve their own health.  My aunt told me that my grandfather always sprinkled vinegar on his food, but that, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to save him from an untimely death.  I am grateful that by 2007, we have so much more information at our fingertips!  (as well as more comfortable ways to prick our fingertips!)

JoAnne conquers diabetes

JoAnne conquers diabetes

Some people may conclude from my family health history that I was pre-destined to have diabetes.  I’m sure that my family genetics gave me the possibility of going on that path.  However, I accept the responsibility for having let it go as far as it did.  By March 2007, I was nearly 30 pounds overweight, and did not believe that I could become diabetic unless I topped 200 pounds.  I have no idea how I came to that strange conclusion, but it made me feel safe.  Now I know that excessive body weight is a major factor in the development of diabetes, and that yes, it can even happen to me if I weigh less than 200 pounds.

I am also grateful for all my friends and family members who have cheered me on and encouraged me in my efforts to improve my health; and grateful to God, who has heard and answered my many prayers!

Because I have lost so much weight and improved my diabetes, many people ask me for advice.  Here is what I’d like to tell all those who are searching for a way to reverse their diabetes:

1.      Make your health your highest priority.  Without your health, you won’t be able to make your contribution to the world, so this is not selfish!

2.      Be a problem solver.  Don’t let any obstacles stand in your way.   Think your way around anything that could hinder you from achieving your goal.  If one way doesn’t work, try another way!

3.      Don’t be too hard on yourself as you adjust your lifestyle to reach your goal of good health.  It’s a learning process, so even mistakes are valuable.  Forgive yourself and remind yourself that you’re in a process.

4.      Reach out for support from friends, family, and God.  You don’t have to do this alone.  Love and support is all around you!

My story is not over yet, I know.  I’m still reading and seeking and changing.  One thing I know, however: diabetes may run in my family, but it’s not going to win!



To contact JoAnne visit:

Create your family health history at


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