Whether you live with diabetes (of any type) or not, trying to make lasting changes in how you eat and exercise is incredibly challenging. For many, it probably feels downright impossible. If you’ve spent the last 15 years of your adult life eating salads for 4 days before giving-up (‘cause you’re so darn hungry) and eating every indulgent, sugar-laden carb in sight...you’re definitely not alone.
Adding diabetes to that mix creates an even greater obstacle to overcome because the pressure on us to eat “perfectly,” to exercise daily, and lose weight is non-stop. We are constantly bombarded in every part of life—the media, our doctors, our parents, our family, and every single book with the word “diabetes” in the title.
And the fact is: yes, living well with diabetes does require a great deal of discipline in your daily habits, but too often, we approach it by trying to change the habits themselves without doing the critical first step—changing how we think, particularly the perspective from which we see ourselves and our disease.
That’s exactly what Daniele Hargenrader has had to do in her own life, and now helps other achieve, too.
Daniele Hargenrader, BSNS, CPT, PWD—known well as the Diabetes Dominator—has lived with type 1 diabetes for nearly 30 years (since she was 9 years old!) and while she is a powerhouse of diabetes energy, ambition, and positivity today, she knows the struggle with food, health, and diabetes all too well.
“My father died very suddenly of a heart attack when I was 12,” says Daniele. “That set-off a severe depression that I coped with by binge-eating. I developed a food addiction and my weight climbed to over 200 pounds by the time I was 13 years old. I maintained that weight into adulthood, along with consistent A1Cs above 12%, blood sugars constantly around 300 mg/dL all day long.”
In the past, says Daniele, food was her enemy.
“It was something that brought me both comfort and immense pain at the same time because I didn’t understand how I could ever ‘eat healthy’ and still be happy.”
Eventually, in early adulthood, Daniele decided enough was enough, and not only was she determined to improve her relationship with food, she knew she had to accept diabetes as part of her life in a much, much different way.
“Today, I know that my intuition partnered with how I feel after eating something and the feedback I get from my blood sugar readings are the determining factors of what is ‘healthy’ for me,” says Daniele. “And just because one specific plan works well for someone else means nothing when it comes to whether or not it will work for me, and leave me feeling happy and healthy.”
Daniele also calls herself a “95% vegetarian” because while she knows she feels best without meat in her regular diet, she refuses to put a restriction on her diet by forbidding herself to have it.
“It gives me the mental wiggle room to eat animal products if and when I feel like it, without any guilt, shame, or blame.”
After years of personal self-study, along with exploration and experimenting with exercise and nutrition, Daniele has become a coach for others with diabetes looking to feel empowered by their disease—instead of victimized by it.
“The very first step in creating real change in how you eat and exercise, and how you manage diabetes on a daily basis, is your mindset,” says Daniele.
For many of us, this sounds obvious when we hear it, but actually taking the time to work on this—to really think honestly about how you view diabetes, and to consider the way you talk to yourself—isn’t so simple.
Daniele created a system she calls the six pillars of health. “The first pillar is mindset, and it’s critical to start there. If you give someone a workout plan or a nutrition plan, but they go into it with the same beliefs and thought patterns that lead them to where they are now, eventually the old mindset will kick-in and take them right back to where they started.”
The other pillars in what Daniele refers to as the Wheel of Health, are nutrition, fitness, body systems (sleep and waste), support (from family, friends, etc.) and mindfulness (paying attention with intention). "To keep the wheel moving forward think about each of these areas—it will help you see where you lack focus and give you a blueprint to work on," Daniele explains.
How many times have you tried to start anew but found yourself reliving the same feelings of defeat and failure, convinced yet again that you can’t change this part of your life? Are you convinced that 10 years from now, you will still be struggling to feel satisfied by a low-calorie, painfully boring diet of steamed broccoli and baked chicken only to find yourself bingeing on cupcakes and pizza, and leave you feeling trapped in this harmful, painful pattern?
“Deconditioning and reconditioning a pattern is a very hard thing to do, especially on your own,” explains Daniele. “Every time you do or think something negative, you have to commit to catching yourself in that thinking pattern, stop thinking that way in that moment, and reflecting honestly with, ‘Hey, there’s that thing again that I’ve been doing for 17 years that isn’t serving me'.”
Daniele encourages her clients to break that pattern in the moment with simple distraction techniques. "Try turning on music you love, practice deep breathing for 30 seconds, putting your thoughts down on paper in a journal—even if it’s just a few sentences. Sometimes that can be all that's needed to make the difference and stop the negativity."
It takes attention and practice but by consistently interrupting old patterns, the bad ones will eventually subside. "Once you interrupt it enough, it will eventually stop happening automatically,” she says
Too often, we don’t even realize we’ve been stuck in a pattern at all. To realize that it's your very own thoughts that are holding you back—not your love of chocolate or cravings for buttered pasta. That's a rude awakening.
“Once you’ve had enough time to step back and look at what you’re doing, and catch yourself in those moments, this light turns on,” adds Daniele. “You stop and you suddenly realize, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’ve been doing this to myself for so long.' ”
Food Does Not Have Morality
When that realization of just how powerfully your own thinking is impacting your entire life and your ability to reach your goals, then the ability to change really starts.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I’ve never felt unburdened by diabetes in the last 20 years, but I feel that way now,’” explains Daniele. “It’s simple: their mindset has changed.”
You are no longer a victim of diabetes, but instead, a person who is confident in their ability to live with the disease—not only by making decisions that benefit you but also by not beating yourself up for the decisions that aren’t quite as “perfect”...like enjoying a slice of cake.
Remove the guilt and the self-blame, choose the slice of cake thoughtfully, check your blood sugar, take your insulin, check your blood sugar again, and move on.
“Food does not have morality, yet we often label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ which then makes us feel that exact emotion toward ourselves if we eat that food. That is another detrimental trick of the unconsciously trained mindset,” explains Daniele.
Learning how to own your decisions around food—whether you’re choosing cauliflower and hummus or chocolate chip cookies—is the simple difference between battling with the food you eat and enjoying the food you eat.
“The biggest obstacle after that,” says Daniele, “is when a person is unaware or unwilling to accept the fact that they are the best expert on their diabetes. Period. There is no other human being on the planet that’s going to be able to tell you what you need to do in order to thrive.”
You can study and learn and study and practice, but at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to see exactly what happens to your blood sugar within each and every set of circumstances.
You are the only one who knows what happens to your blood sugar when you drink black coffee on an empty stomach first thing in the morning and how much insulin you do or don’t need for that seemingly harmless cup of coffee.
You are the only one who knows what happens to your blood sugar when you go to a CrossFit session versus what happens when you go for an hour-long walk with a friend. You can learn what ought to be happening based on exercise science, but in those moments, you are the expert, you are the one who can study, take notes, and make decisions.
Daniele adds that just because you can’t stick to a ketogenic diet or the Whole30—or whatever—doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’ve yet to create the right approach that works for you.
“You have to take the time to figure out what works well for you, without scolding yourself just because you can’t follow a plan that works well for someone else.”
Being able to know that you are a person who, for example, feels best on a nutrition plan to includes chocolate and strawberries but still keeps total carb-intake under 150 grams per day, is actually the simple result of trial, error, and reflection. Creating a relationship with food that leaves you feeling empowered requires a positive mindset and supporting yourself through that process.
“If you’re always looking outside of yourself for a new plan to follow, a new simple trick, another diet plan or miracle workout, you’re going to continue being stuck.”
Finding true joy and empowerment in your health, your relationship with food and your identity as a person who has diabetes starts from the inside with your mindset, belief in yourself and ability to live well with this disease.
Daniele's 2015 book, Unleash Your Inner Diabetes Dominator, is available on Amazon.