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Diabetes Meets Determination with a Dash of Sass: An Up-Close interview with Lauren Plunkett

Hope Warshaw interviews Lauren Plunkett, a person with diabetes, registered dietitian, and certified diabetes care and education specialist to learn how she reframed her own diabetes diagnosis, how she prioritizes mental health, and the importance of connecting with others.

An essential element of managing your diabetes may be learning from and being supported by others with diabetes. Call it peer support, a feeling of camaraderie, or simply finding your tribe. Connecting with people like you who get it, can make a big difference in your diabetes care, mental health and attitude. 

This up-close interview with Lauren Plunkett, a person with diabetes (PWD) as well as a registered dietitian (RD) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), who has just written the book, “Type One Determination,” which serves up positivity, challenges diabetes perfectionism, and offers successful strategies. Enjoy the read!     

Hope Warshaw: Give our readers your diabetes diagnosis story and early experiences of managing diabetes. 

Lauren Plunkett: I was diagnosed at 11 years old with the usual symptoms – intense thirst, weight loss, and exhaustion. The next 10 years were really hard! I had a negative relationship with my body; food was the enemy. I felt trapped in a web of controlled chaos. I was responsible with my daily insulin needs, but I had developed a volatile temper that was exacerbated by drastic fluctuations in glucose levels. Stress, frustration, and my rebellious nature channeled my energy down a negative spiraling path. I was scared. I felt like I had no control over my life and its quality. 

HW: Were you able to turn your life and relationship with diabetes around? If so, how?  

LP: I didn’t have answers to solve my dilemma, but I did have life experience. I had a series of awakenings that slowly helped me improve my attitude and health. Each moment taught me that I had to take ownership of my body, embrace diabetes, and stop blaming the part of me that wasn’t functioning – my beta cells. I came to recognize that flaws are beautiful, and they make space for remarkable growth. Coincidentally, I happened upon an article in a cycling magazine about Team Type 1 (Team Novo Nordisk) racing across America. I was in awe of their achievements and, from this, was empowered to raise the bar on my life and diabetes care. I started making changes to my food choices and exercise habits immediately. This connection and new motivation put me on the road to becoming a RD. I also found a mentor and learned how to find and review evidence-based research. My love for sports nutrition led to traveling the U.S. as a speaker for JDRF and launching my nutrition consulting practice.  

HW: How does being a PWD as well as a healthcare provider who counsels PWD impact how you care for your health and counsel PWD? 

LP: I took the opportunity to live better with diabetes through education, nourishment, and movement. Treating my whole body with care vs. focusing on just glucose management was key to improving my mental health. Changing my attitude, values, and finding purpose, was one result of having a better relationship with food. 

In taking agency over my future, I realized that I had to become an expert, step up, and do what scared me the most – returning to academics to study dietetics. For years, my self-worth was tied to my A1C and lab reports. Standing up to my inner critic was an enormous challenge. I kept fighting because I knew in my heart the diabetes field needs disruptors like me; people who are willing to fill knowledge gaps based on personal experience.

HW: Tell us why you wrote your book, “Type One Determination”?

LP: Speaking for JDRF gave me the opportunity to visit with communities across the country and a collective message came through: PWD deserve better care. Many of us share similar experiences. Diabetes is as complex as the lives of the people who live with it and many PWD feel like they’re on an island — alone and stuck. They may not have the tools to help themselves or feel like victims of inadequate health advice. We also share a desire to improve communication with our healthcare providers. In my book, “Type One Determination,” I share lessons that I have learned about managing diabetes and how I took ownership over my health through nutrition, exercise, and a mindset shift. 

HW: What are your key messages to PWD about where one’s diabetes care and mental health come together? 

LP: We are people first. Diabetes is a partnership with the individual that we are. We are only as healthy as our attitude and our thoughts are powerful. The way we think can affect our physical health. Dysfunction in our physical body can, in turn, affect our mental health. Having a grasp of the powerful mind-body connection is critical. Overtime, and with work, it’s important for PWD to view diabetes as a strength, rather than a weakness. We must recognize that flaws can offer opportunities for growth.  

HW: In the presentation you gave at the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists’ 2021 conference, you spoke about the havoc that language and perfectionism can evoke for PWD. Can you elaborate? 

LP: Today’s diabetes technology is remarkable, but there’s a downside. Seeing those glucose values constantly can lead to raging perfectionism. We must consider the impact of all the diabetes tech and data on mental and emotional health. The pressure we put on ourselves might be invisible, but the added clinical oversight can lead us to tie our self-worth to our numbers. Diabetes care must be paired with uplifting language that promotes self-efficacy, rather than the historically deprecating tone. Clinical terms like ‘poorly controlled’ or being labeled ‘a diabetic’ can be extremely offensive to those that live the experience every day and don’t want to be identified as a disease. 

HW: As an RD who has diabetes and counsels PWD, what are a few evidence-based nuggets about food choices and eating habits? 

LP: Eating healthy begins with the personal attitude that I am going to nourish my whole body rather than feed the diabetes. Diabetes impacts the whole body – organs and systems. The better we care for ourselves holistically, the more we come to understand the uniqueness of our diabetes. I feel best when I eat nutrient dense foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Nutrition research has demonstrated promising evidence about the digestive benefits of whole, plant-based foods. Digestion is connected to everything — mental health, brain health, metabolism, and the endocrine system. All systems benefit from eating plant-based foods. This philosophy has immensely improved my quality of life and positively changed the health of others I have counseled in remarkable ways. 

HW: As a PWD who has made physical activity an integral part of your life, what are a few nuggets about balancing physical activity with glycemic management? 

LP: For me, exercise is mental health. The physical benefits come from implementing it consistently. If a PWD is struggling to fit exercise into their daily life, I recommend starting with simple goals that employ multitasking. For example, walk during meetings or phone calls or use weights while you watch TV. We know hypoglycemia during or after physical activity is a frequent fear of PWD. Limiting hypoglycemia requires a plan to match a PWD’s comfort level. Understanding terms like intensity, duration, aerobic, and anaerobic; provide a framework for developing a protocol to maintain an optimal glucose range before, during, and after exercise. Find guidance to implement this yourself in “Type One Determination.”

HW: What is your favorite part of counseling and caring for PWD?

LP: The unbreakable bond we have as people with diabetes. I can feel a sense of comfort in our lived experiences that allows our time together to be really productive. It’s the feeling of speaking the same language in a unique space where we can learn and discover solutions for living with diabetes together. Helping improve a person’s experience contributes to my purpose of having T1D. I believe that’s an important element to a happy and healthy life. 

HW: Where can diaTribe readers purchase your book? When will it be available? 

LP: The book is available now. The official launch is Nov. 14, World Diabetes Day! Order your signed copy here

HW: Thank you Lauren for your work, wisdom and passion! 

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDCES, BC-ADM, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist. She has spent her career, now spanning more than 40 years, involved in diabetes care and management. Over the years she has authored countless articles and blogs, numerous consumer books and many professional journal publications. She is dedicated to helping people with diabetes live their best life!