Finding out she had diabetes was wake-up call for 49-year-old chef Staci McDonald.

As a chef, Staci McDonald has made a career out of helping people unlock their potential through their diet. So in October 2019, when her doctor informed her that she would be dead from a heart attack or stroke in a matter of months if she didn’t make some changes, she was in shock.

“To do what I do for a living and to have allowed my health to get this bad was embarrassing," McDonald, 49, tells Health. “I was angry and confused. And in that moment, I was distraught. I thought, If this is what’s happened to me, what have I been doing to my clients?

For two years, the Los Angeles-based mother of two was already experiencing what she now realizes are some of the tell-tale signs of diabetes. She was always hungry—eating every hour when she was awake—and constantly thirsty.

“I actually thought it was good because I was drinking so much more water, and that new habit just meant I had to go to the bathroom more,” she explains. “But I was also dealing with fatigue and blurry vision for over two years, and finally I decided it was time to go see the doctor.”

Her physicians ran an assortment of tests, and McDonald was sent on her way. But after returning home, she received a call from the doctor. “He said that I needed to come back in the next morning," she recalls. "Usually it takes a while to hear anything back, and he was so serious about it that I knew something was wrong.”

Her test revealed that her blood sugar levels and other diabetes markers were so high, she was only allowed to leave after receiving insulin. “They injected me and gave me some medicine to take with me, then told me that if my numbers didn’t come down, I was going to the hospital," she remembers.

After her diagnosis, she was confronted with some of the same food and eating choices she’d been helping her clients with.

“I knew what everyone else knew about diabetes. I knew about the complications. But I didn’t know how you got it or how it came into your life," she says. "Being a chef, you’re also a teacher, and in an instant that was dismantled for me. I had to rethink everything I knew and everything I’d been teaching other people. And I had to do it fast.”

In addition to insulin and medication, the doctors gave her a diet to follow. “It was basically 150 grams of carbs, and I realized that they were telling me to eat the things I was already eating, the things that had led me to the state I was in. Obviously that wasn’t going to be the way I got back on track, so I went home and started googling 'how to beat type 2 diabetes,'” she says.

After a few hours reading articles and watching YouTube videos, McDonald discovered a doctor who was an advocate for the ketogenic diet, or keto diet—a plan that involves cutting way back on carbohydrates, to 50 grams a day or less, to help the body achieve a state of ketosis. Once in ketosis, the body has to burn fat (rather than sugar) for energy.

A lot of what the doctor said resonated with McDonald. Immediately after switching her diet and breaking up with sugar, she felt better. “I started sleeping better, and weight I’d had for over a decade was just melting away. I was amazed at how quickly it worked.”

Three months after her diagnosis, she went to see her new doctor. While reviewing her lab results, the doctor stopped; she couldn’t believe what was on the screen. McDonald's blood sugar was 81. “She asked if I wanted to know my A1C,” she says. “And she told me it was 5.6, which is a non-diabetic range. She was in shock. She kept asking me what I had done. And all I had really done was changed my diet.”

Shifting her diet was crucial, but she realized she needed to find a community of other people, and other women, to help keep her on the road to good health. “It was really important to me that I find a supportive group of women who were on the same journey I was on," she says. "As a mom, I’m often overlooked. Moms aren’t supposed to have a bad day. Mom cooks, she cleans, she gets the groceries. She’s always smiling. That’s what she’s supposed to do. No one looks at me like, this is Staci the person and she deserves someone to encourage her, to uplift her. And so having a sisterhood I could lean on was a priority for me when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.”

This desire for a community led her to Mary Van Doorn, the founder of Sugar Mama Strong, a diabetes-focused wellness group and resource for women. “I met Mary online, and her community has been a lifeline for me. It’s a community that understands that sometimes you fall, and they help you get back up. Some of these women have been on the road with type 2 diabetes for years and some are just starting out, but we are all striving for the same abundant living we all deserve to have."

Eight months after she was told she might not live past the winter, McDonald's numbers have stayed consistent. She continues to adhere to a keto diet and has started working out.

“Type 2 diabetes is not a death sentence. It is brought into your life to provide an awareness that your health is off track," she says. "But it’s also an opportunity to reinvent yourself. You just have to have that commitment to change your life and to continue to educate yourself.”

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