'I Ate My Way to Healthy:' Erika's Weight-Loss Success Story

When Erika Kerekes, 50, learned she had type 2 diabetes, she didn't take the diagnosis lying down. She found a way to outsmart the disease with food — and it's working.

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Growing up, I was pretty stocky, but so was most every one around me — I come from a family that likes food. My dad, a pediatrician, had a closet candy addiction: He would hide sweets in his car and at the office, though my brother and I could usually get him to share. And while my mom thought we were health conscious — at least by 1970s standards — there were a lot of pasta and diner dinners.

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The adults in my family cycled between piling on the weight and dieting it off, and sure enough, I joined them on the pendulum. Since my early twenties, I'’d lost and regained 30 to 40 pounds at least three times. Though I made mistakes early on — at one point I was starving myself and trying to live on water for days — I eventually found sane, healthy ways to lose, like enrolling in Weight Watchers, working with a nutritionist, and monitoring my portions.

I used to eat when I was stressed or just because food was in front of me. But I'm learning to listen to my body and eat only when I'm hungry.

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But the older I got, the more hectic life became, and I just didn't have the energy to think about exercise or what I ate. Eight years ago my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I live in California but flew back to the East Coast every month to see him, all while trying to keep an eye on my two sons and manage my grief. I ate whatever was closest and comforting — meaning carbs. Sadly, my dad passed away, and soon after that my husband learned he might lose his job. For years I'd been a stay-at-home mom, but suddenly I had to scramble to find work.

I eventually landed a position at a media company. Then, in 2013, I decided to start an all-natural condiments line, along with working full-time. I'’d gotten inspired after I took my kids fruit picking and turned their baskets of cherries into a fruity ketchup that everyone was crazy about. I pushed myself around the clock, rewarded myself with pasta, pizza, and fries, and swore that I didn't have time to exercise. Building my business was more important to me — even if my body hurt whenever I stood up. By then, I was carrying more than 200 pounds on my tiny 5-foot frame.

That year I went in for a checkup and learned my glucose levels had reached the prediabetic range, when your blood sugar is higher than normal but not high enough to be classified as type 2 diabetes. My doc emphasized what I already knew: that I needed to exercise more and lose weight. But I crawled into a cave of denial, joking that on my mom’s side, lots of our relatives had lived to be 100, so I'd probably live forever. Two years and several tests later, my doctor called to say that my blood sugar had crossed over from “Kinda high, we should watch it” to “You have diabetes.” I was floored. And angry at myself.

He put me on a diabetes drug, urged me to start exercising, and told me to return for another checkup in three months.

I immediately jumped on my computer, wanting to learn as much about the disease as I could. I had blown too many opportunities to take care of myself in the past, and I refused to make that mistake again. One of the first things I came across was a TED Talk about “reversing” type 2 diabetes. Research has shown that in some cases — especially early on in the disease — when people with type 2 diabetes shed weight, shift their lifestyle and eating habits, and stick with the changes, they may not need drugs to control their blood glucose.

The video explained how certain foods, like carbs, can throw your blood sugar out of whack. Suddenly, everything made sense. I could visualize what was going on inside my body when I ate a bowl of pasta.

I put myself on a low-carb diet, and in order to maintain it, I looked for healthy substitutes that would kill my cravings. Like if I really wanted a slice of pizza, I'’d make a low-carb eggplant and zucchini casserole with almond meal and mozzarella. It has all the feel of pizza without the dough. I even changed up my condiments line, creating versions with no added sugar.

Another turning point: I followed my doctor’s orders and committed to exercising daily. I got an elliptical machine for my 49th birthday and started spending 45 minutes on it every morning during the week, as well as hiking or walking with friends on weekends.

I lost nearly 20 pounds in two months, but that wasn't my primary goal. I wanted to feel better, and I did, almost immediately. When I went back for my three-month checkup, my blood sugar levels were normal. Normal! My doctor practically tap-danced when he saw the results. I no longer needed the diabetes medication, and my doc was even able to cut down on the blood pressure meds I'd taken for 16 years.

Since that visit, I've lost 23 more pounds, but I wouldn't ’call what I've done a diet. To me, that implies a temporary state, but for the first time ever I feel that the healthy changes I've made in my life are really permanent. They have to be if I want to keep winning the diabetes fight. And that’'s what I tell myself every day: I'll do what it takes to stay healthy.

Can you really kick diabetes to the curb? Sort of. Type 2 diabetes can go into remission when people lose weight and bring their blood sugar levels into the normal range the way Erika did. But you can't fully cure the disease, only control it, says Robert E. Ratner, MD, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association. Type 2 diabetes is a fluid situation — it can always come back. That's why you have to work with your doctor to stay on top of it — even when you think you have it beat.

This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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