Lauren Bongiorno, a type 1 diabetic since she was 7, overcame a "horrible" relationship with food to become a holistic health coach helping others manage the disease.

By Corey J. Maloney
May 29, 2020
Advertisement

While home for college over Christmas break, Lauren Bongiorno went for an endocrinologist appointment. At the time, she was a 21-year-old type 1 diabetic. Diagnosed with the condition at age seven, she was no stranger to these appointments: the tests, the anxiety of waiting to find out her A1C result, the potential feelings of disappointment.

So when her doctor said that her A1C was 5.7, the lowest it had been since she was diagnosed, Bongiorno should have been thrilled. (An A1C blood test monitors diabetes over time; 5.7 is in the range between "normal" and prediabetes.) Her mom was elated, as was her doctor, who labeled her a “star patient.” She had done everything right, and the numbers were proof. But instead of sharing the joy of her mother and doctor, she felt defeated.

“I felt like a fraud,” explains Bongiorno, now 27. “In college I wanted to lose weight, stabilize my blood sugars, and feel more in control of my diabetes. But I went down the path of restriction and obsession, which ultimately got me a near-perfect A1C but left me with a horrible relationship with food, an unsustainably restrictive lifestyle, and feeling less in control of my life than ever before.”

Bongiorno didn’t celebrate her A1C results because of the toll it took to get them. She was eating all her meals at home, often turning down invites from friends to go see a movie so she could avoid being tempted by popcorn. She checked her blood sugar constantly and scheduled her life around the availability of a cardio machine.

“After losing my menstrual cycle for nearly five years because of the stress I was putting on my body, I realized something had to change," she recalls. "Relying on a couple of trips a year to my endocrinologist wasn’t enough to tend to the mental, emotional, and physical demands living with diabetes entailed.”

That endocrinologist appointment became the kickoff for Bongiorno to change her unhealthy eating habits and start approaching the disease with more ease than struggle. “I just felt like there had to be a better way to live with diabetes,” she says. So she shifted her focus to learning about her body and challenging what she’d been taught. The life she wanted was rooted in a more holistic approach to not only her diabetes, but to her overall health.

After years of working to become more empowered and confident, Bongiorno found her calling—she realized that there was a need for holistic health coaching in the health space.

“Before all this happened, I was supposed to go to law school just like my dad,” she explains. “I wanted to fight to improve our food and health care system. But I decided to become a certified health coach instead. I made this pivot because I realized I didn’t want to fight big companies to do better. I wanted to empower people with behavior change and give them the holistic tools they needed to make living with diabetes less of a burden.”

Her drive to become a certified coach was also born out of her firsthand experience with the gaps in traditional type 1 diabetes management. “I wanted [other diabetics] to feel the freedom I’ve felt physically, mentally, and emotionally, removing the burden so they too could enjoy life without diabetes getting in the way,” she says.

Part of Bongiorno's approach to health is rooted in mindfulness—which led her to incorporate yoga into her daily life as well as in her coaching. “I was playing Division 1 soccer in college when I first started practicing yoga. I was simply looking for something to help both my mind and my muscles relax a bit from the mental and physical demands the sport required," she explains. "I had no idea that it would help make me the healthiest, happiest version of myself. And, I absolutely had no idea how much it would help me manage life as a type 1 diabetic.”

Yoga has also helped Bongiorno develop a healthier relationship with food. “Growing up with diabetes, there was always a clear distinction between good foods and bad foods," she remembers. "There was so much outside noise telling you what you should be eating as a diabetic, and the rules caused me to live in a state of extremes. I was either eating really healthy with great blood sugars or I was eating whatever I wanted with numbers in the 300s. Yoga really helped me slow down and examine my relationship with food and find a true place of balance.”

Physical activity in general is a huge part of her life, especially when it comes to managing diabetes. Bongiorno finds that working out in the morning increases her insulin sensitivity throughout the remainder of the day.

“When I get in my daily movement, whether that’s strength training, yoga, or a HIIT workout, the insulin I give myself is able to take the sugar out of my blood much faster," she says. "On days that I want to indulge more, whether that’s having pizza or chocolate, I use exercise as a tool to help my numbers not go as high. This might mean going for a walk after eating, or simply doing 50 bodyweight squats if I notice my blood sugar starting to rise.” Bongiorno eats roughly 200 grams of carbs a day on the days she works out, and she fills up her plate with plant-based foods. “But I make sure to always leave room for some chocolate after dinner,” she adds.

As a diabetes health coach for her eponymous company, her goal is to improve a client's relationship with food and figure out what works best for their body.

“When we’re first diagnosed, most doctors will tell us that you can eat whatever you want as long as you give insulin for it," she says. "The truth is, however, even though we can eat all foods, it makes it much harder to manage our blood sugar numbers with that type of mindset. I’m a big proponent of food logging in the Diabetic Health Journal to see how different meals at different times of day might impact your blood sugars differently. It’s all about finding your own body’s patterns.”

Bongiorno also helps her clients understand their triggers for food cravings, which can lead to a greater sense of self-compassion when they eat something that doesn’t serve them. “Oftentimes we know what to eat, but we have trouble following that through 100% of the time," she explains. "When we don’t, there can be this shame and guilt that follows us. It’s important to understand what might be triggering our food cravings—emotions, restriction, hormones—and more importantly, how to practice self-compassion in those moments.”

Since launching her company, Bongiorno has helped hundreds of people with type 1 diabetes through her coaching programs, online courses, and resources that ultimately give them more support and control over the condition. For these T1Ds, the label “diabetic” no longer holds them back from living a life with more clarity, peace of mind, and freedom.

“I believe though that no word can make us feel inferior without our consent," she says. "Let’s associate the word ‘diabetic’ with strong, warrior, resilient, and unique rather than associating it with broken, imperfect, weak, or different. And let’s accept that diabetes is a piece of us, and we get to decide what that means.”

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter