Reversing type 2 diabetes on a whole food plant-based diet

Should reversal be the paradigm in type 2 diabetes?

I came to the UK around 30 years ago, weighing 80kg and with a healthy body mass index of 23–24. My diet then immediately changed. In India, we were eating home cooked food, with occasional meals out. In the UK, there was much more access to ready foods (often processed, rich in fats, sugar, and salt) that were not accessible in India. Being a busy junior doctor with a young family, I often ate a standard ‘doctor’s lunch on the run’, which consisted of an egg, cheese, or tuna mayonnaise sandwich with a packet of crisps and a can of coke. Being tall meant that it did not show, and I thought very little about the food I was eating.

I have a strong family history of type 2 diabetes, with my grandparents, mother and both siblings being affected, and it was easy to blame my genes!

In 1996, I stopped eating meat and chicken when my family became vegetarian for ethical reasons. My rationale for continuing to eating fish, eggs and dairy was that I did not want to ‘stand out’ in a department of people who socialised a lot and enjoyed eating meat. However, I was still putting on weight, and by 2000 I weighed 95 kg. I was constantly asked why I was putting on so much weight.

Despite cutting out junk food, living a more active lifestyle and not overeating, by 2011 my weight had increased to 108kg. On my frequent trips to India to visit my elderly mother, I would visit a hospital near her home to have blood tests. The tests began to show that my blood parameters were heading towards the prediabetes range and I had a very elevated cholesterol level. I had tried all sorts of diets, including a version of the Atkins diet, which was purely fish, eggs, and cheese — not hugely pleasant! However, the blood markers of diabetes just got worse. In 2016, I felt my vision slowly deteriorating, a sure sign of the onset of diabetes. I was driving to a friend’s house 4 years ago a few days before Christmas. My wife had fallen asleep next to me. It was only eight in the evening when I realized I had nearly driven into a lamp post, which I had not seen till the last second! My wife woke up and realized in that moment that there was something terribly wrong with my vision.

I had developed cataracts in both my eyes, and I was also having trouble with recurring frozen shoulder. I was now officially diabetic. This kicked me into action. I forced myself onto a strict diet of 800 calories a day for 6 weeks (the eight-week blood sugar diet by Dr Michael Mosley) and adopted a brutal exercise regimen, including cycling 30–40 miles a week, amongst other physical activities. In three months, I lost 10kg, but my diabetic markers were still getting worse. I could not understand it! I was desperate to avoid starting medication for diabetes. I eventually had cataract surgery, which improved my quality of life amazingly.

One day I was scrolling through Netflix when I came across a documentary that caught my attention called ‘Forks over Knives’. Watching this prompted me to immediately give up eggs, dairy and fish and to adopt a purely whole food plant-based diet. I had fantastic support from my wife Nitu, who had been a longstanding ethical vegan and was as excited about the healing potential of a plant-based diet.

I have now lost a further 17kg without needing a ridiculously restrictive diet or exercise programme, and it has changed the way I approach food for good. I have reversed my diabetes with blood parameter than have remained normal for 3 years. There have been some ‘side effects,’ I sleep better than I have ever slept, feel more energetic than I did 15 years ago and I have not had my recurrent episodes of back pain twice a year. Even more amazingly, two thick patches of ugly lichen planus around my ankles, which I had from the age of 10, have completely vanished and my nocturnal acid reflux has not recurred in 3 years! My total cholesterol level is 3.8mmol/l year on year and all my other lipid parameters are normal. Above all, I feel full after I eat, rather than constantly hungry when I was trying to diet.

Since my success in reversing chronic illness, I have qualified as a lifestyle medicine practitioner (at the age of 56 and having trained as an orthopaedic surgeon). I find this knowledge really helps me to examine and treat patients more holistically. For example, if I see a patient with back pain, I will look at their weight, blood pressure and other factors to help me evaluate why they are experiencing this pain. Lifestyle advice can help avoid the need for surgery. I use every opportunity to help others learn what I as a medical practitioner was unaware of.

So what do I eat on a daily basis? I follow time-restricted feeding and eat mainly between 12–7pm. I drink a cup of black coffee on waking. At midday I eat a bowl of steel cut porridge oats cooked with sprouted rye, spelt, amaranth, millets and soya milk with lots of berries, a whole banana, 2 tablespoons of flaxseeds and some walnuts. During the rest of the day I snack on lots of fruit and occasionally eat a slice of rye or sourdough toasted bread with hummus at 4pm. Dinner is eaten by pm and starts with a large salad consisting of sprouts, especially broccoli sprouts, kimchi or sauerkraut, tomatoes, rocket leaves, beetroot, hummus and some nuts. The main course varies and usually includes red or brown rice, beans or lentils or a sweet potato. Other common main meals are tofu with stir fried vegetables and whole wheat or lentil pasta with all kinds of vegetables. For dessert, soya yoghurt with fruit.

Do I have any regrets? Yes of course. I feel stupid that as a Doctor I did not know anything about nutrition and my knowledge came from straplines in newspaper articles. I feel sad that I had ill health for absolutely no reason. I strongly feel that as healthcare professionals, we should inspire our patients and use every contact to help them avoid chronic ill health and regain their health using a lifestyle medicine approach.

Dr Rajiv Bajekal, September 2020

If you have found this article useful, please follow my organisation ‘plant-based health professionals UK’ on Instagram @plantbasedhealthprofessionals and facebook. You can support our work by joining as a member or making a donation via the website.