It’s 10.30 and the pre-diabetes class is gathering for its two-hour stint in King’s Church, Lewes. I go through the door and move to where others are standing in line, ready to be weighed. I take off my shoes, stand on the scales and notice – with a small, irritated grunt – that I have gained a kilo. No words pass between me and the leader as she records the number in her notebook.
I am one of 30 people in the group – 20 women and ten men. The women look to be all shapes and sizes but not particularly fat; the men, on the other hand, all have big bellies and are definitely overweight. I sit in my usual place in the corner and prepare for today’s topic – meal planning.
The friendly man next to me says he is a gardener, so always on the go, and doesn’t do any cooking.
Most cases of Type 2 diabetes are the direct result of lifestyle choices – being overweight, obese and physically inactive. Diabetes is one of the serious ‘underlying health issues’ that makes a bad – often fatal – outcome from Covid-19 more likely.
Diabetes costs the NHS £10bn a year and around nine in ten cases are Type 2
The Covid pandemic, on top of real government cuts to the NHS, means our health services have never been stretched tighter. Slowing down the epidemic of diabetes is a top priority.
This is one reason why I’m sitting in this church hall – to make sure I don’t become one of those avoidable statistics.
The leader invites us to shout out what we believe the benefits of meal planning might be. ‘Peace of mind’ says one, ‘Saving money’ offers another voice, ‘Less food waste’ chimes in a third. Me? I’m quiet. Meal planning is anathema to me.
From the other side of the hall, a woman claims she finds planning difficult because her husband eats completely different food from her. The leader asks for ideas on how to deal with this incompatibility. The self-appointed class joker, who sits on my other side, shouts: ‘Divorce!’ The class laughs. The leader is unfazed. She is friendly, knows her subject well, sticks to an agenda, uses PowerPoint deftly and is generally in control.
There are 4.7m diabetics in the UK, a number expected to reach 5.5m by 2030
When we get on to ‘shopping for the prepared meal’, I recommend tins of beans and chickpeas for the stock cupboard, especially now that Brexit has caused price increases and made some items hard to find. There’s a hue and cry from the men, though the women stay quiet. ‘You gloom monger. Everything is going to be better.’ I laugh to ease the tension, but in truth I despair. How can they be so blinkered? We can all see the empty shelves and hear the news about post-Brexit problems disrupting the supply chain and pushing up prices. I wonder if they all read the Daily Mail.
When it comes to recommended amounts of alcohol, the same joker shouts: ‘I drink two bottles of wine a night and I’m none the worse for it.’ I whisper to him that he should have therapy. When it’s my turn I say I don’t drink now; he shouts again: ‘I’d better move in with her then.’
At the end of the session, a kindly-faced woman approaches and whispers: ‘Don’t let him move in with you, dear.’ I reflect on the random assortment of people in the room, all brought together to stave off their own descent into diabetes. I rather fear this a representative slice of 2020s Britain, even in the liberal enclave of Lewes. I do hope not, but hope is not a strategy.
The leader is calm and unruffled by the joker’s interruptions. She shows us pictures of food packages. The amount of added sugar in the lists of ingredients makes some people gasp. We are invited to look for processed ingredients and to understand the meaning of ‘xx grammes of carbohydrates of which yy are sugar’. In other words, to be wary of the food manufacturers’ tricks.
This makes me ponder on the strange world of capitalism: to make a good profit, to please shareholders, the food industry engages in marketing and selling cheap products which they know are bad for our health, high in fat, salt and sugar (or HFSS in the jargon). The Government has announced a ban of HFSS ads by the end of 2022 (much to the industry’s chagrin) but I sense that might be bolting the stable door a couple of decades after the horse has bolted. And will the government fail to deliver on yet another ‘promise’? Who knows?
Brexit, leaving the EU, also means manufacturers are not held to as-high standards on labelling.
I leave disconsolately, saying goodbye to no one. Why do we turn up each week? I keep coming even though I know the principles of the programme already, because I need to keep motivated. I feel a shame at the prospect of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Perhaps we’re developing a sense of community, very different as we are ‘all in it together’ to use Cameron’s ill-judged phrase. Perhaps the individuals in the hall are slowly becoming accountability buddies. And if five or ten of us avoid developing diabetes, then we will have done our bit for ourselves, our community and the NHS.
There are two types of diabetes – in both, blood sugar levels can get too high because the body doesn’t produce insulin, the hormone which regulates blood sugar. The main difference between the two types is that type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder that is often diagnosed in childhood, and type 2 is largely diet- and lifestyle-related. For information and advice about diabetes: www.diabetes.org.uk, www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetes