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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Smallest Winner competitor Vernon Torres runs stairs during an exercise program at Spiece Fieldhouse.

Losing insulin shots a win

Contest’s workout helps local diabetic ditch the needles

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne police officer and Smallest Winner competitor Vernon Torres works out during a group exercise program. Torres lost 50.2 pounds during the initial phase of the competition and has been able to stop taking insulin injections.
Torres’ change in diet and exercise helped him reduce his need for insulin shots
Torres and his teammates exercised for 90 minutes during a recent session.

This year, Vernon Torres sent an audition video to Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner weight-loss contest. He looked straight into the camera and said he was a local police officer and had been injecting drugs for more than a decade.

The statement was attention-grabbing to be sure. But it also was true – Torres had been giving himself insulin shots for more than 12 years because he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, in which sugar builds up in the blood to unhealthy levels because the body’s ability to make or use insulin is impaired.

Three weeks ago, Torres, 56, was at Spiece Fitness at 6:30 a.m. with his Smallest Winner teammates, doing laps of the gym, running up and down steps and crab-walking across the floor. And that was just the warm-up.

“We’re moving constantly for an hour and a half,” says Torres, who was 50.2 pounds lighter by the end of the initial 15-week workout schedule. Participants continue to exercise on their own schedule.

More significant, he says – after he lost his first 26 pounds, he was able to stop giving himself insulin shots. Torres now controls his disease, sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, with oral medication alone.

As Americans become more health-conscious and the prevalence of diabetes rises, reversing diabetes has become more frequently touted as a benefit of diet and weight-loss regimens.

Season 14 of “The Biggest Loser” TV show, for example, the at-home winner Gina McDonald, who began the regimen with diabetes but no longer had it at the end, viewers were told. And a recent book by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, “The End of Diabetes,” has as its message that the nutritional advice diabetic patients receive is inadequate.

“I declare, ‘Don’t live with your diabetes, don’t simply control your diabetes – get rid of it,’ ” writes Fuhrman, who came to Fort Wayne last year to promote a strict, primarily vegetarian diet of nutrient-dense foods.

But can someone actually cure diabetes once diagnosed? And are such messages realistic for most patients?

Yes and no, says Dr. Mel Karas, an endocrinologist with Lutheran Medical Group in Fort Wayne.

“In 25 years, I’ve had less than 10 patients who have completely cured it,” he says of Type 2 diabetes. “But it does happen, and it should happen more. The reason it doesn’t is because compliance (with diet and exercise) is difficult, and we’re all human.”

Karas says Type 2 diabetes patients often notice that, when hospitalized and eating a prescribed diabetic diet minimizing carbohydrates and sugar, their need for insulin or oral medication goes down dramatically – and typically within 24 to 48 hours. The same thing happens when patients lose about 10 percent of their body weight, he says.

In those people, the pancreas can still make enough insulin to handle their dietary input, Karas says. But if they go off the regimen, their blood sugar level goes up again.

But that’s not true for all people with diabetes. Some develop complete failure of the pancreas, “and they can’t get off insulin,” he says.

Pancreatic failure can happen when patients remain undiagnosed or don’t control the condition for a long time, he adds. The average time from onset to diagnosis is seven years, he says.

LeighAnn Brooks, a registered dietitian with Parkview Health, says diet or exercise alone is insufficient. “It going to be the combination that works,” she says.

And, even if patients do their best, she adds: “One of the things that we often didn’t recognize or educate about is that diabetes is a progressive disease – the longer you have it, the more likely it will get worse.”

So, patients shouldn’t feel they have failed if they have to go back on medication or insulin, she points out.

“It may not be something they did or didn’t do – it’s just the way diabetes progressed in their body,” Brooks says, adding that the disease has a genetic component that isn’t well understood.

Torres, the first insulin-dependent diabetic among the 150 to be accepted by the local Smallest Winner in its six seasons, says his insulin and medication dosages had to be adjusted during the program. At one point, his calorie count was raised because his activity level had increased, he says, and he found he needed to eat every two hours to keep his blood sugar regulated and time medication around his workouts.

Tina Walters, 46, who oversees Fort Wayne’s Smallest Winner with her husband, Rick, 52, an exercise physiologist, says the program isn’t specifically designed for people with diabetes and doesn’t make claims about it.

But because the program uses physicians, trainers, nutrition and behavior specialists and periodic medical tests to tailor regimens to individuals, it may meet the needs of diabetic patients, she says.

“Vernon would test himself … and he would tell us if he was feeling lightheaded or needed to eat,” if his blood sugar fell low, she says. “It has been just amazing to watch Vernon and see his disposition change. When he first came in, the first two weeks, he seemed very down, and not wanting to be there.

“We put him with a nutritionist who specialized in diabetes, and she was able to tweak his food, and it was really like a light switch went on. He said, ‘I do feel better.’ And he started showing up early and joking with the other contestants. We see it every year – attitudes do change.”

Torres says he liked the accountability and the camaraderie of the program, which receives major support from Lutheran Health Network, despite its strict diet and a workout schedule that often had him exercising twice a day up to 90 minutes at a time.

He says he has lost his sweet tooth and reads product labels for fat and calories. He is now signed up with a personal trainer and is preparing to run the Fort4Fitness half-marathon Oct. 5.

Acknowledging that he often ate in his patrol car at drive-thrus in his Aboite Township territory, Torres says he has cut out a lot of fast foods – he now orders salads at drive-thrus. He also no longer has to “crank up insulin” to deal with blood sugar spikes.

“When they said their target was for us to lose 50 pounds, I actually thought I’d lose 25. I never thought I could lose 50 pounds,” says Torres, who clocked in at 201.2 at his last weigh-in.

“I’ve already won because I got off insulin,” he says. “I know my pancreas is weak. But if I can at least stay with just pills, I’ll be happy.”

rsalter@jg.net

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