By: Brenda Neugent
Martie Neugent’s diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is one of those moments that he looks back on thankfully. He learned that he had the condition in 2000, at age 32, during what he assumed would be a routine trip to the doctor. Instead, it turned out to be a pivotal opportunity to make one of two choices. He could go on exactly as he had, adding a cocktail of medications to control his blood sugar levels, or he could make some noteworthy changes and map out a new life. For him, the choice was an easy one. “All my mother’s uncles died at a young age,” Neugent said about the ravages of diabetes in his extended family. “And my great-grandmother lost her leg. My first thought was that I was probably going to die if I didn’t get it fixed.”
Neugent decided to transform the way he was living. “I just didn’t want to take the shots or the medications for the rest of my life,” he said. Although his doctor was ready to put him on medication immediately to get his blood sugar levels under control, she also told him that he could probably control the disease by losing weight and exercising. With her encouragement and approval, Neugent made his choice, which became even easier after learning that diabetes medications come with their own set of problems.
Neugent started by changing his diet. He had been raised on traditional Southern country cooking, and a typical day included a couple of breakfast biscuits from a drive-through window, followed by a three-course meal of leftovers from the night before, and then a standard supper of meat, potatoes, and dinner rolls. Add generous helpings of his favorite snack foods, and it was a diet disaster. “I probably ate enough for three people at supper,” Neugent recalled. “Five people, actually.”
Although Neugent was very active, working as a heavy-equipment operator by day and tending to yard work and other strenuous activities at night, it was not enough to burn off the calories he consumed throughout the day. “I burned off enough for two people, maybe,” he laughed. “But not five.”
Following his diagnosis and his decision to change his life, Neugent traded those traditional Southern dinners for high-protein, low-carb meals, measuring them out to control their portion size. Initially, he cut back to about 1,200 calories a day, but increased his caloric intake after his doctor told him that he needed to eat more to ensure that he was getting enough nutrients. He focused on high-protein, low-carb foods like boiled eggs, tomatoes, tuna, and veggies.
When he didn’t get the encouragement he needed at home, Neugent moved on, surrounding himself instead with people who recognized and supported his desire to revamp his lifestyle and make his health a priority.
In addition to getting tough with his diet–no bread, no sausage or bacon, no ice cream, and no honey buns, which were his favorite–Neugent began walking two miles before and after work. He dropped about 10 pounds in that first week alone. “It took about two weeks to get my sugar down to normal,” he said.
Within a few months, Neugent traded his walking shoes for a road bike. He started out riding 15 or 20 miles per day, but soon upgraded to a bike with more gears, allowing him to ride faster. He began taking 65-mile tours of his neighborhood and the surrounding counties, speeding past tobacco and corn fields, lush woods, and subdivisions. “I love being on the bike,” Neugent said. “You can see so much more when you’re biking than you can when you’re walking. On my bike, I feel like I’m flying.”
With countless miles behind him, Neugent developed legs like steel that allowed him to ride for hours, cruising his neighborhood at speeds that reached 50 miles per hour on the downhills. But perhaps more importantly, he began seeing himself differently-not as a big guy destined to follow in his family’s unfortunate footsteps, but as an athlete. It was a major step for someone who had often been the last one chosen in gym class back in school, thanks to his larger size.
Neugent began signing up for group rides in order to compare his progress with other riders. In 2002, he took on the two-day Tour de Tanglewood, a benefit ride to raise funds for multiple sclerosis. The next year, he signed on for the six-day, 500-mile Mountains to Coast ride, a state-sponsored trip across North Carolina that began in the Blue Ridge Mountains (a favorite training area of Lance Armstrong) and ended on the sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast.
“It was absolutely the best time I ever had,” said Neugent, who probably puts more miles on his bike than he does on his truck. “It’s amazing what your body is capable of doing if you push it a little.”
Neugent is now almost 100 pounds lighter than at the time of his diagnosis 12 years ago, and his blood sugar levels are still controlled by diet and exercise. He has found that when he runs into former classmates, including those who didn’t choose him for their team in gym class, they often don’t recognize him in his new, leaner body. Those encounters, he said, mean almost as much to him as his healthy, new body.
How could Neugent not be grateful for the health scare that ultimately gave him sculpted muscles, a lean body, and optimism for the future? About his choice to take on diabetes so fearlessly, disregarding how it had already ravaged so much of his family, he said, “I was just determined to beat diabetes. The thought of losing a leg or a toe made it really easy. Really. There was nothing hard about it. Nothing. I was just determined to live.”
“Diabetes saved my life,” he concluded.