Tom Watson is best known for being deputy leader of the Labour party, but the West Bromwich East MP is also a prominent low carb diet campaigner with a vested interest in improving the UK’s health and diet. Last year Mr Watson lost seven stone and put his type 2 diabetes into remissio, now he is on a mission to raise awareness that type 2 diabetes can be overcome and that, contrary to myth, it is not a chronic, progressive disease.

This Diabetes Week (10-16 June), of which the theme is redefining diabetes, Diabetes Digital Media’s Low Carb Program spoke to Mr Watson about his diagnosis, motivation, advice for others with the condition and what changes are required to reshape the way type 2 diabetes is viewed.

Mr Watso, 52, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2017. “When I was first diagnosed I was utterly crestfalle,” he said. “I felt like something inside me had broken. At the point where I was diagnosed, I’d probably had type 2 diabetes a while. My blood glucose had probably been high for months, if not years.”

He was prescribed medication and feared that due to his past disappointing experiences with dieting he was stuck with this condition. “Before I changed my nutrition – after 30 years of putting on weight and doing yo-yo dieting – I just got to the point of thinking I was a lazy, greedy person. I’d embedded that notion in myself because I just couldn’t lose weight.”

The diagnosis served as a wake-up call though, and Mr Watson learned more about the role of diet with regards to beating type 2 diabetes. He cut out sugar, processed foods in plastic trays and almost all starchy carbohydrates.

“What I now know is that for 30 years I was getting sugar cravings, every three hours, and as soon as I dealt with that I stopped being hungry. I used to wake up and think ‘which part of me aches the most?’ and then I’d probably think ‘is there any pizza left in the fridge? Let’s drink coke out of the bottle’. I never want to go back to that. As soon as I came off sugar, the weight started to come off and the brain fog lifted from my body, and I just started feeling better and better every day.”

It was a rapid turnaround. By June 2018, he had lost six stone, crediting ‘bulletproof coffee’ as being pivotal in his new diet, as well as swapping beer and curries for avocado salads. He also began walking 10,000 steps a day which contributed to the weight loss, eventually moving on to jogging and cycling.

In September 2018, Mr Watson announced that he had put his type 2 diabetes into remission. This meant that his blood glucose levels had stabilised and he no longer required medication. A significant step indeed, but far from the last, because Mr Watson’s work to spread the low sugar message is only just beginning.

Mr Watson speaking with Dr Aseem Malhotra at the Public Health Collaboration annual meeting in May 2019

Seeing diabetes differently

“A low carb diet changed my life,” said Mr Watso, who hopes his story will inspire others to embrace a low carb lifestyle and experience similarly transformative health benefits.

“The thing I feel so passionately about is that there are millions of people who could do what I’ve done. And I want them to feel as good as I feel. I know the UK guidelines say don’t do it, but talk to your GP and tell them you’re going to give it a go. It’s more likely than not that you’ll feel great at the end of it.”

Mr Watson has since campaigned for a number of health changes. Earlier this year he called for cartoon characters to be removed from all high-sugar foods to help drive down childhood obesity rates, and he is working with an independent group of experts looking into what measures could be introduced to combat the rise of new type 2 diagnoses within five years.

“The rise of childhood obesity should be a concern for all of us. Nearly a third of kids are leaving primary school either overweight or obese and that’s a serious health problem 10 years down the line, for all of us as a society. We have some schools giving kids breakfast now, which isn’t particularly regulated – a lot of it is charity donations, a lot of it is high, starchy carbohydrates.”

The rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes, particularly among children, can be traced back to the 1980s where guidelines based on dubious evidence were released in the UK claiming a high carb, low fat diet will ward off heart disease. This was then introduced as dietary policy for diabetes. But these guidelines have since been debunked, and low carb, low sugar eating is now becoming more accepted by prominent healthcare professionals as a means of not just improving blood glucose and losing weight, but also putting type 2 diabetes into remission.

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Still though, doctors and pharmaceutical companies remain keen to ensure people with type 2 diabetes don’t fear medication, and this is something Mr Watson believes should be challenged. Rather than making prescription drugs the first-line treatment, he says social prescribing (referral to services designed to holistically improve health) should be prioritised by government and the NHS.

“Now, social prescribing is the thing we need to look at, and how we deepen and broaden the reach of social prescribing. It requires good partnerships [between surgeries and the NHS] and best practice to be scaled, but this could be a really important way forward.”

Diabetes Digital Media’s award-winning Low Carb Program is among the services that has demonstrated outstanding benefits, namely one in four people with type 2 diabetes putting the condition into remission at the one-year mark; the Low Carb Program app received NHS Digital approval earlier this year. Elsewhere, more than 200,000 people have been referred onto the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme since its launch in 2016.

When Mr Watson reflects on his diagnosis and the changes he made to reform his health, he acknowledges that he required urgent medical treatment – his health had deteriorated. But moving forward, he hopes that nutritional advances and a growing evidence base will lead to less people automatically being shifted onto medication.

“Do not panic”

“The first message we should give people when they’re diagnosed is ‘do not panic, you can sort this out.’ There are things you can do to get your life back.”

Mr Watson was in the midst of changing GPs during his diagnosis, and believes prior consultations could have led him on a different path far earlier. “In hindsight, I can recognise intervention points where if there had been a conversation about the suite of sugar-related illnesses, I could have avoided medication.”

The benefits of coming off medication and going low carb became immediately clear. “I now realise I’ve expended so much mental energy thinking about where the next sugar rush would come from. What [coming off sugar] gave me was more energy and more mental clarity to spend on doing more positive things rather than thinking about eating and drinking all the time. That then frees you to embed other habits which make life more meaningful and fun.”

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes then visit our Diabetes Forum for support and experiences from over 300,000 members. The Forum also has success stories from people who’ve achieved significant health improvements, recipes, meal plans and provides an open platform for those looking to share their stories.

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