Tom Watson interview: How I lost eight stone and beat diabetes
Waking up the morning after his 50th birthday, Tom Watson was hungover and tired. He sat down to breakfast and looked through some of the cards from the night before when one stopped him in his tracks.
He says: “I’d had a lovely party and it was quite emotional because there were lots of old friends and loved ones there. But I woke up and there was a card that said ‘Fab and 50’ and I sat there having an Alka Seltzer and thought, you’re not fab and 50, you’re fat and 50 and you are going to die if you don't sort this out.”
The former MP and deputy leader of the Labour party weighed 22 stone and had been diagnosed four years previously as type 2 diabetic.
The wake up call of his milestone birthday led him to start a new regime that would see him lose eight stone, give up politics and start training to become a fitness instructor.
Tom, now 53, explains he had spent a long time ignoring his diabetes diagnosis and had carried on with his diet of takeaways, bacon butties, chocolate hobnobs and pints of beer.
“Like a lot of middle aged men, I was in denial about the condition,” he says.
“I didn't want to have it and so I pretended I didn't have it and the magnitude of the consequences of that took time for me to absorb and register.
“I did make some tiny changes to my diet. I had tried to reduce my sugar but kept failing. It was only when I heard that very loud voice in my head saying ``you are going to die and you have got young kids and you want to live for them, that I really committed to it.”
He sat down with a pen and notebook and wrote the heading Project Weight Loss.
At first he tried to lose weight using government guidelines and the EatWell plate, which is based on starchy carbs.
Tom says: “Before I read more about weight loss, I would have a huge bowl of porridge with one or two bananas and a squirt of honey and think I was eating healthily. In fact when you are a type 2 diabetic it was the worst thing I could possibly eat.
“I think if you are very insulin resistant that level of starchy carbs is bad. At one point I realised my carbs intake far exceeded what Public Health England guidelines was because I just didn't comprehend quantities. So I started measuring out my porridge in the morning and eating considerably less but even that was too many carbs in the end for me and I don't touch it now.”
Then he read the Fast Diet by science journalist Michael Mosley, which was based on research by Roy Taylor at Newcastle University about an 800 calorie a day diet that could reverse diabetes.
But after acknowledging he wouldn’t be able to eat a very low calorie diet for the long term he started looking into the science of ketogenic diets, including a book called “The art and science of low carbohydrate living”.
“The authors made a very strong scientific case for some physiologies needing fewer starchy carbohydrates than were recommended by public health bodies around the world.
And that really helped me commit to it,” he says.
The theory is low carb diets keep insulin levels low, which forces the body to use stored fat for energy. This state is called ketosis.
Tom says: “I have always believed in evidence based policy making and for me to reject the guidelines of the government knowing how hard public health experts work and how they try and seek the best evidence, it took me a bit of time to get there.”
In October 2017 he finally decided to try out the new diet, with just 20g of carbohydrate per day, and stocked up on lamb chops, salmon steaks, chicken thighs, leafy greens and mixed salad for his main dishes. Then, for desserts, he bought punnets of blackberries and raspberries, which have low fructose levels, as well as tubs of full-fat Greek yoghurt and double cream. For snacks he ate hard cheese and unsalted walnuts.
Tom says: “I would eat a lot more eggs. I had bacon and eggs cooked in olive oil for breakfast. I had cheese omelette scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or pieces of fatty steak and loads of salads with great olive oil salad dressing. It was a very different way of looking at food.
“I stuck to a low carb, medium protein, high fat diet and it really worked for me straight away. I was definitely living it minute by minute. I was really conscious of what I was putting in myself and what my body was saying. After a few days my body was definitely saying: please give me sugar!
“But I was so determined to get into ketosis I was very disciplined.”
The discipline paid off and he lost seven pounds in a week, but he also began to feel much better than he had in years.
“The weight loss was good and rewarding and very important,” says Tom. “But even more than that, which is hard to describe, is I realised my body had been inflamed and it is just like it became at ease with itself a bit more and I was more in the moment. I know these aren't scientific terms but that's what it felt like for me and it gave me a bit more bandwidth to deal with things. There was more energy in the tank and I could walk more steps.
“I had a little bit of withdrawal from sugar in the first week where I felt a bit under par but then I just started to feel less hungry and sleep better. Things started to improve almost immediately and I didn't want to lose that feeling. It was tiny at first but it grew and the gains got greater and greater.
“I just felt clearer headed. I had voluntary recall of facts and figures more quickly and sharply. I felt calmer. I could process information for longer periods of time. I could read more without nodding off or being distracted. I had greater attention in meetings. I could get more done and concentrate and focus more and I don't ever want to lose that clarity again.”
Before losing weight he was embarrassed by his size and didn’t have as much energy as he would have life for playing with his children Malachy and Saorise.
“I used to be embarrassed at swimming baths, jumping in there was always a fear there wouldn't be any water left. I felt very self conscious,” says Tom.
“I also missed out on a lot of kicking a ball around with my eldest and I still regret that. He is 14 now. Now I have to drag him out to kick a ball but when he was younger he always wanted to do it.”
Looking back at the way he used to eat, he says it has become clear that he was addicted to sugar.
“I have no doubt I was a sugar addict for a very long period of time and I didn't know it. What I thought was just natural greediness was actually cravings as I was on three hourly sugar spikes and drops. I think I had been like that for a long time and not had the ability to discern that. I was just snacking on whatever sugar I could get, almost constantly.
“I felt like I had been hungry for 30 years every minute of every hour of every day.
Like I had been constantly hungry and all of a sudden I wasn't any more and it was like a liberation. It was such a great feeling. Before I had been thinking about where my next sugary snack was coming from now there was more bandwidth for me to think about other things.”
Was there one sugary treat that he could never resist before he lost weight?
“Chocolate Hobnobs,” he replies immediately. “There was a point where if you put a plate of Chocolate Hobnobs in front of me I wouldn't have been able to not eat them all.”
Friends also told him, after he was no longer in the grip of addiction, that they had even seen him swipe left over cake from another table as he chatted with them in a cafe. He was stunned: “I wasn’t even aware I had done that,” he says.
He started to exercise in his local park by walking from lamp post to lamp post, but as the weight dropped off he made sure he went for a long walk every day, moving onto cycling and then joining a gym. Now he loves exercise so much he is training to be a fitness instructor.
Tom says: “I'm training to be a level two gym instructor. I have done the initial course but I have to do the anatomy exam and a portfolio. I'm just trying to get that in the next 12 months. That's for personal interest. I want to be in a position where I can give advice to others because I have had over 1000 emails asking for advice. I tell people I'm not professionally qualified but I could give a bit of advice on living an active life with a level 2 gym qualification.
When you stand down as an MP it takes a couple of months to disentangle all your obligations so I finally closed down my constituency office at end the of February and I’m currently writing my third book which is a political thriller but my real mission is to try and mobilise the millions of people with type 2 diabetes to try and get public policy changes which support them and there's lots we can do.”
Since losing weight he has completely changed all aspects of his life, from sipping fizzy water instead of Coke or beer to tackling a Go Ape climbing challenge with his 11 year old daughter. “I wouldn’t have gone before because the harness wouldn’t have fit me,” he explains.
But the most surprising side effect of all after losing eight stone has been his decision to walk away from politics. Why does he think it happened?
"I’ve often felt maybe I just became too chilled out for politics,” he says.
“In my early days as a politician and the first year or two of being deputy leader my fight or flight responses were probably triggered at least a dozen times a day and what I now know is that is shots of cortisol hardening your arteries. Then in the last couple of years, despite very great provocation from far too many people who were behaving very badly, that just didn't happen any more.
“I just dealt with the pressure and the insults in a far calmer way and I don't know if that took away my political edge but I'm certainly the happiest I have been at the age of 53 and I have no regrets about leaving politics.”
He’s also happy with the amount of weight he has lost and says he won’t be trying to drop any lower.
“I'm very comfortable with the shape I'm in now and I still feel like I'm in control of my eating. I will never go back to the way I was before. I will never let it happen.
There are too many joys in life I will lose again if I go back to the way I was.
It's a matter of profound sadness that it took me a long time to get there but great relief I finally did.”
More by this authorAlex Spencer