‘It took a car crash for me to turn my health around’

Rajiv Bajekal, 60, is a spine surgeon and lifestyle medicine practitioner and lives in Middlesex 

I was driving to a friend’s house a few days before Christmas, four years ago, with my wife asleep next to me, when I nearly smashed into a lamppost. I hadn’t seen it until the very last minute and as I swerved to avoid it, I realised there was something very wrong with my vision

It turned out I had developed cataracts in both eyes. I knew from some recent blood tests that I was pre-diabetic, as well as having elevated cholesterol levels. I had also realised that I was struggling to see things like the television at night – but that near-car crash was my wakeup call

Tests confirmed that I was now diabetic. The problem, I knew, was down to my diet and weight. When I came to the UK 30 years ago, I weighed 80kg and had a healthy BMI of 23. In India I was used to eating nutritious, home-cooked food, but as a junior doctor in the UK, I often ate lunch on the run – a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, crisps and coke. By 2000, I weighed 95kg and even though I tried to cut out junk food, by 2011 my weight had increased to 108kg. 

When I was diagnosed as officially diabetic, it kicked me into action: I was desperate to avoid starting medication. I forced myself onto a strict diet of 800 calories a day for six weeks and adopted a tough exercise regimen, including cycling 30–40 miles a week, among other physical activities. In three months, I lost 10kg, but my diabetic markers were still getting worse. 

One day I was scrolling through Netflix and saw a documentary called Forks over Knives, which is about how a plant-based diet can help save you from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Something really resonated with me – as a doctor I could see the science behind it. Overnight I went from being pescatarian to giving up fish, eggs and dairy and adopting a purely whole food plant-based diet, with support from my wife, Nitu, who had long been vegan.

I have now lost a further 17kg without needing a restrictive diet or exercise programme, and it has changed the way I approach food for good. I have reversed my diabetes and my blood parameters have remained normal for three years. But more importantly, even though I turned 60 this year, I’m much fitter and happier than I was when I was 35. 

I really credit the way I eat to the huge improvement in my emotional health. I’m much more relaxed, I have fewer mood swings and more energy during the day. I’ve brought this knowledge into my work, too, and treat patients much more holistically. For example, if I see a patient with back pain, I will look at their weight, blood pressure and other factors to help me evaluate why they are experiencing this pain. Lifestyle advice can help avoid the need for surgery. I use every opportunity to help others learn what I as a medical practitioner was unaware of.

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