Diet & Diabetes

Health, Home & Family
on November 28, 2004

Cooking for a living is demanding work that involves long hours in the kitchen, tasting food to make sure dishes are properly prepared, and little time to eat wholesome meals. So when a professional chef is diagnosed with diabetes, the challenge is to adapt without trading good health for the pleasures of a rewarding career.

“I can tell you coping with it isn’t difficult, but it is all up to you,” says Harry Brockwell, 66, a retired restaurant owner and caterer who lives in Westlake Village, Calif. (pop. 8,368).

Brockwell, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 1980, says living with diabetes boils down to personal responsibility. That’s why each day, he takes his medication, checks his blood sugar, walks two miles and builds meals around fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats. And when it comes to cravings, he says, indulge them, but be reasonable.

“I walk by an ice cream place and it calls my name,” Brockwell says jokingly. “If you’re craving something, have it but eat a small portion.”

The 18.2 million people in the United States with diabetes have the same nutritional needs as everyone else. However, because their bodies don’t produce or properly use insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy, what they eat—and in what quantities—is particularly important. Eating well-balanced meals in the correct amounts can keep blood glucose levels close to normal. That can reduce the chances of developing diabetes-related side effects such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness and nerve damage.

Making smart choices

Having diabetes doesn’t prevent chef Michael Tibbs from preparing the steak and seafood meals that his customers order at Farley’s Restaurant in Scranton, Pa.

“For me, having diabetes and being healthy is all a matter of attitude,” says Tibbs, 46, who was diagnosed with the disease at age 22. “I’m not going to let diabetes stop me from doing what I love, and I love to cook.”

In the kitchen, Tibbs balances the business of sampling what he prepares into his daily calorie count. To curb the urge to snack, he always eats breakfast and includes plenty of protein in all meals.

Eating out, even for a chef, can require some forethought. “Choose places that fit in your meal plan,” Tibbs says, explaining how that may mean trading a fried fish restaurant for one where it’s broiled or steamed.

“I choose chicken instead of pasta, and I plan ahead so I know what I’m eating fits into my plan,” he adds. “Passing on alcohol eliminates empty calories.”

The goal, he says, is to balance food and exercise so that the calories eaten and burned average out. “At one time, I’d have ordered an appetizer, soup, entrée and dessert,” Tibbs says. “Now I just order the entrée. Diabetes is really about making smart choices.”

Living well with diabetes doesn’t require special cooking or a restrictive diet. Both Brockwell and Tibbs recommend these tips for healthful cooking and eating:

  • Read food labels to avoid excess sugar, fat and carbohydrates.
  • When baking, substitute applesauce for refined sugar.
  • Use bouillon instead of heavy cream when making sauces.
  • Select low-fat cheeses and use them in modest quantities.
  • Flavor dishes with lemon or orange juice instead of butter.
  • Season salads, vegetables and meats with fresh herbs and spices.
  • Include small quantities of flaxseed oil, which contain heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acid, to soups and casseroles.
  • Try new food preparation techniques, such as smoking meats and roasting vegetables.
  • Make salad dressings with flavored vinegars, a touch of low-fat ricotta cheese and fresh garlic, plus small quantities of healthful oils such as peanut or olive oil.
  • Include whole grains, which are believed to help reduce bad cholesterol, such as barley and oatmeal to soups and casseroles.