As a former nurse, Vanessa Davies was in no doubt about what the warning signs might mean.
When her eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly and her fingertips started to go uncomfortably numb, she suspected diabetes.
But when a blood test revealed she was right, even she was startled by just how bad her health had become.
Vanessa had type two diabetes – and her weight problem and poor eating habits were almost certainly to blame.
Her size 28 body already meant she was breathless at the first sign of exertion and now her blood sugar levels were dangerously high too.
Just before she was diagnosed she weighed almost 16 stone.
‘As an ex-nurse I thought “What have I done?”’ she admits with tears welling up in her eyes.
‘You think it’s too late but actually it isn’t. You can make a big difference if you try now.’
That’s something the petite mum-of-three knows all too well, after she managed to lose nearly seven stone and halt her diabetes in its tracks.
She now hopes that more people will follow her lead after her blood sugar levels returned to normal when she lost weight.
The number of people being diagnosed with type two diabetes has increased rapidly over the last few years and in many cases lifestyle factors have been blamed.
There are now more than 2.5 million sufferers in the UK and experts have warned that the NHS faces a time bomb if the spiralling rates aren’t brought under control.
When Vanessa was diagnosed with diabetes on new year’s eve 2009, her GP referred her to a scheme that would give her free access to one slimming group meeting a week.
Vouchers paid for by the NHS meant she could attend either Slimming World or WeightWatchers without charge for three months, saving herself the weekly £5.99 membership fee – a welcome break considering she’d just been made redundant.
Other similar schemes are on offer for obese patients across our area (see panel) if they meet certain criteria based on their body mass index and other factors, such as diabetes or heart disease.
For Vanessa, joining WeightWatchers was the kick-start she needed. And she believes it’s right that the NHS should help more people in this way.
‘It was an incentive, a good incentive,’ she explains. ‘I probably would have gone anyway but getting the vouchers made a difference.’
She adds: ‘They are paying millions on testing people for type two diabetes and all the medication we have to take for that. The NHS funds all of that. This is probably a cheaper way.
‘Health is health at the end of the day and you’ve only got one life.’
Today Vanessa’s a slim size 10/12 and weighs nine stone – a much healthier weight for her 4ft 10in frame.
As she looks back over the photographs that reveal how she used to look, she finds it hard to believe she’s the same person.
The 50-year-old lives in Catherington with her husband Nick and their three daughters aged 25, 23 and 17.
And when Vanessa started following the WeightWatchers eating plan, she wasn’t the only one to see the benefits of cutting down on fats and sugars. Nick has also lost five-and-a-half stone while her oldest daughter has lost more than three stone.
In total, Vanessa’s lost six stone 10 pounds with the slimming group and is the lightest she’s been since her teens.
For the first time in her life she owns a pair of jeans and she’s hoping to put her childhood nickname – chair breaker – behind her once and for all.
‘I wish I’d done it sooner. There’s a lot that I regret, particularly when it comes to the children.
‘They’d be playing in the garden and I’d sit and watch them. It used to be uncomfortable to do anything really.
‘They would say “Can we do such-and-such?” and I’d say no because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
‘Unfortunately, I did leave it too late and that’s a big regret.’
Like many, Vanessa has struggled with her weight all her life.
Despite managing to lose some in her teens, she remembers getting married and the pounds creeping back on.
‘I was comfortable in my relationship and with the kids.
‘My mum used to nag me when she was alive but I think that had a reverse effect.
‘I knew the weight was going on. I think if I’m honest, I just didn’t care.
‘My confidence has always been low, I’ve always had low self-esteem and thought I was good for nothing.
‘I was nicknamed chair breaker at school and that stuck right from the beginning.
‘I didn’t have lots of friends and certainly didn’t have any boyfriends. I was always poked fun at. I was thoroughly miserable, cried a lot and couldn’t wait to leave school.
‘You don’t necessarily realise how unhappy it makes you at the time.’
She adds: ‘I think I would put on a front for other people. I was always fat and jolly but there were a lot of things I couldn’t do.
‘I used to run around on Guide and Ranger camps with a water pistol and it wouldn’t be long before they’d catch up with me and pour a bucket of water over my head.
‘I’d laugh but I’d be thinking “I wish I could out-run them”.
‘Of course I couldn’t. I was huge.’
Despite the fact that she’d always been careful to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, large helpings were her downfall.
But it wasn’t until the end of 2009 that she realised her unhealthy eating habits were having a devastating impact on her health.
‘In six weeks my eyesight had deteriorated dramatically.
‘Something just wasn’t right with my eyes. Even with my glasses, I couldn’t see.
‘My optician said “You need to see your GP” and I thought “I know what you’re going on about”.
‘I think that scared me. To very suddenly start losing your eyesight or something like that is quite a major thing.’
Tests revealed her blood sugar levels were dangerously high at 13.6. Left untreated, diabetes can cause heart disease and strokes.
But after shedding the weight, Vanessa’s latest blood test revealed a blood sugar level of just 4.3 and that’s at the lower end of the normal scale.
‘They don’t take the title away completely but they have said I’ve reversed my diabetes,’ she adds.
‘There’s always a chance that it might come back but I’ve reduced the risks.’
Vanessa’s so pleased with what she’s achieved that she’s become a WeightWatchers leader and runs her own group at 7pm on Thursdays at Horndean Technology College.
She says the eating plan is easy to follow and gives people a set amount of ‘pro points’ to follow, rather than a calorie count.
Exercise also became a part of her life.
At first she used the Wii Fit computer programme and then began to attend Zumba and aerobics classes.
‘It’s like any eating plan – you’ve got to get your head round it,’ she says.
‘You’ve got to take on board that if you eat seven McDonald’s in a week, you’ll have blown your pro points out of the water.
‘It’s about educating people and showing them they can do this and still lose weight. You can prove it works because I’ve done it.’