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New habits life-changing

Five years ago, Gisborne forestry worker Tama Koia was looking ahead to some serious health problems resulting from the diabetes he had developed. Among the spectre of possibilities were blindness, gangrene and dialysis.

Today, thanks to a Gisborne study centred on a plant-based diet and lifestyle changes, he is free of his daily insulin shots, 10 kilos lighter and fitter than he’s been for 40 years.

Tama was one of 33 patients referred by doctors at City Medical to the BROAD study, which was conducted by Gisborne doctors Nick Wright, Luke Wilson and exercise physiologist Morgen Smith with oversight from public health physician Dr Bruce Duncan and GP trainer Dr Patrick McHugh.

The target group were people with heart disease, hardening of the arteries, diabetes and other chronic health problems related to being overweight.

The study was funded by various local charitable trusts and supported by the Eastern Institute of Technology, which made it possible for the study group to meet twice a week to manage the radical change in their diet.

Dramatic changeFor Tama the change was dramatic. “No meat, no dairy products, no oils, no sugar, no milk and no seafood — no crayfish,” he said. “I did not really think of the long term and sort of went yeah, yeah, yeah.”

But the reality was a bit of a shock even though his wife Chris was already giving him a healthy diet.

The things he missed most were eggs and cheese. “The meat did bother me for a little while, especially sausages.”

But because it was a medical trial, he decided to give it his best effort. And when he visualised himself sitting up in hospital all day having dialysis, he was grateful his doctor Stu Hockey had given him the chance of an alternative, and to his wife Chris who readily adapted to the changes.

He gained tremendous support and inspiration at the evening sessions at EIT on Tuesdays and Thursdays where adult community education co-ordinator and former chef Sue Matthews organised cooking workshops.

There they learned what they could do with potatoes, pasta, beans, vegetables, legumes, soups, salads, stir fries and rice, combining them with herbs and spices to make tasty, nourishing meals.

Participants split into two groupsThey were split into two groups which would alternate between the cooking workshops and working with study leaders on lifestyle changes.

“It was great — people came along with their recipes and we made our own pizzas and stuff like that.”

Chris started reading labels at the supermarket and discovered a growing range of plant-based food, including vegan chocolate, with no chemical additives.

Every second week the doctors would monitor the group’s vital statistics. Tama noticed an increase in his energy levels right from the start. Although he initially felt constantly hungry, he was allowed to eat as much he liked, so long as it was plant-based.

“I was eating tinned peas and baked beans like they were going out of fashion.” But after about six months he was able to stop taking insulin tablets and after another six months, the injections as well.

The icing on the vegan cake was being able to regain his heavy vehicle licence, which had been taken from him because of the severity of his diabetes. He had always regarded this licence as a lifeline for employment and it led to his current job as forestry trainer for McInnes driver training.

At the end of the two-year study, Tama, like the others who finished the course, has a chart showing the progressive improvements in his body mass index, weight, waist measurement, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood insulin levels, and kidney function. He also has a healthy level of vitamin B12, which often has to be supplemented on a vegan diet.

At nearly 70, Tama reckons his new diet has added another 25 years to his life expectancy and he is revelling in the feedback he is getting from his friends and family about his rejuvenated appearance.

Results from study hailedResults from the BROAD study have been hailed by members of the medical fraternity. A conference in Gisborne last month attracted participants from throughout the country and overseas.

“It was great for us to tell our story and share it with medical people from America and Australia,” said Tama. “There was some great interaction.”

The programme’s success led Nick Wright and Morgen Smith to launch a slightly different programme called the EDGE programme — End Diabetes Gisborne-East Coast.

It focuses on people with type 2 diabetes and those who are at risk of getting it. EDGE is supported by Turanga Health, Three Rivers Medical and EIT, with funding from ECT and Turanga Health.

People who are interested in taking part should consult their GP.

Tama Koia reckons he has added 25 years to his life expectancy since taking part in the BROAD study.