More than 250,000 people living in New Zealand have been diagnosed with diabetes and it’s estimated that there could be as many as 100,000 who are diabetic but unaware. We asked Aucklander Andrew Hill to share his experience - his candid account of living with Type 2 diabetes demonstrates there are the massive implications on quality of life for those affected and also their whanau. We first met Andrew 12 months ago and caught up with him again to see how he has fared in the past year. We would like to thank Andrew for telling his story as part of our men’s health Series and encourage anyone who is concerned they may be diabetic or pre-diabetic to contact their doctor. An early diagnosis means you can take steps to manage your health.
When Aucklander Andrew Hill was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes six years ago, it was a huge shock - the 50-year-old former rugby professional says he was fairly active and wasn’t a big drinker.
Genetics and lifestyle played a part in the diagnosis, Andrew says.
Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease and while it can sometimes be avoided by lifestyle changes, in Andrew’s case his illness is complicated by the fact his pancreas does not produce enough insulin. He also has a high level of triglycerides, the fats in our blood that are used to provide energy for the body and are measured as part of a cholesterol test, his mother was diabetic and he’s part-Māori. The factors left him predisposed to getting diabetes.
When we first talked to Andrew a year ago, he told us that his lifestyle had contributed to the progression of his disease – Andrew went through a stressful divorce 10 years ago and admits he could have looked after himself better during that time.
It’s been a tough journey – the medications he takes to control his cholesterol levels and diabetes have damaged his kidney and liver. Diabetes has affected his vision and he’s had to contend with sores on his lower legs and pain in his feet caused by poor circulation, also a downside of the disease.
And 2023 has also had its fair share of ups and downs. Andrew, who works in mental health, had a fall during a work incident, badly damaging his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus cartilage in his knee and ending up with a bursitis on his elbow.
He’s waiting for operation for both injuries and has been off work on ACC. However, his employer recently terminated employment based on medical incapacity and Andrew is in a legal dispute to get his job back.
The injuries and employment situation lead to some anxiety and depression which impacted his diet. Andrew admits his healthy eating habits fell by the wayside as he turned to comfort food and his bloodwork spiralled out of control.
“I wasn’t doing what I needed to do but I’m back on track now.”
Andrew has had to completely change his eating habits, shifting to a low-fat low-sugar food plan. It’s been a steep learning curve as even eating fresh fruit and vegetables can be complicated for diabetics. A banana, which most people would think is a healthy option, can spike his sugar levels. Even carrots and sweetcorn are high in sugar.
He’s focused on eating lots of leafy green vegetables, managing his protein intake and really cutting down carbs.
Refined carbs are a big enemy because if you are not active, they turn to sugar, Andrew says.
“It’s a real education journey I’m on.”
Andrew has started seeing a health coach, through his GP, in the past year and has also changed his diabetes medication, taking some new drugs, Galamet and Victoza via injection, that have come on the market.
“They seem to be effective. I’ve definitely got more energy.”
The new drugs bring some side effects, such as bloating, but they help take away cravings and support people with type 2 diabetes to manage insulin resistance. Andrew recommends other diabetics ask their GP or specialists if these newer drugs could work for them.
He has set some goals with his health coach and is trialling an extreme type of intermittent fasting which involves eating one meal a day.
Living with the disease is difficult emotionally as well as physically – Andrew finds it hard to constantly explain why he wears pressure bandages on his legs or why he can’t have a drink. “I’ve grown up in the sports community – rugby and beer go hand-in-hand.”
But he believes that in the past year he has become more accepting of his diabetes and the steps he has to take to manage it.
“I’m working hard on my nutrition and I take my medication like clockwork.”
Andrew would like to see more nutrition education in New Zealand, particularly for Māori and Pasifika youth – these communities are over-represented in statistics for diabetes, obesity and poor cardiovascular health.
“I wish I’d known how damaging sugar and even small amounts of alcohol can be on the human body. I would have eaten more green vegetables and fewer refined carbs such as pasta, rice, potatoes and white bread.”
Andrew started his rugby career at Wesley College before going on to play for North Harbour and Manawatu.
At school, he says, many of his team-mates were focused on bulking up to be better at the game. But they weren’t always taking a healthy approach. “There should be more focus on body composition than weight.”
Andrew believes the Government also has a role to play in reducing the incidence of Type 2.
“The Government spends millions of dollars providing health care for people with cardiovascular issues, obesity and diabetes. I wish some of that money could go to making healthy eating cheaper.
“It’s all very well telling people to eat salmon but not everyone can afford that twice a week.”
Andrew supports the removal or reduction of GST on fruit and vegetables and he would like to see more big companies encouraged to manufacture food and drink products for diabetics.
He says although you often see sugar-free products advertised, if they contain some artificial sugars, they are not suitable for diabetics.
He and his partner Karen are trying their hand at growing their own vegetables this year – they’ve planted capsicum, lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini – to reduce their supermarket spend.
“Diabetes has changed by life. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle – you can’t reverse Type 2 diabetes. Once a diabetic always a diabetic.
“But my body is feeling better, which I think is mainly due to the new medications.”
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