Diabetes and food, then and now – by Rachel


i logo 80x80Diabetes has influenced my food life for just about as long as I can remember, even before my own diagnosis, as it runs heavily in my family genetics. But its amazing how much things have changed over the years. When I first got diagnosed many years later I thought I was ready and knew what to expect, but by then things had changed completely from what I grew up with!

When I was little my Grandfather was diagnosed as a T2 and so I grew up going to my Grandparents’ house and seeing cupboards full to bursting with Boots diabetic products. From diabetic sweets and biscuits to boxes of fruit sugar, his life revolved around just replacing regular sugar in his diet with various so called diabetic products. In his mind he and I’m sure many other diabetics of the time, felt he shouldn’t have to miss out on things in his life when he could just replace them with a substitute.

I think my Grandparents probably single handed kept Boots going through those few years with the amount they spent on that range of “diabetic products”.

As young as I was back then though, even I could sense this didn’t seem to be a good idea. I remember thinking that fruit sugar wasn’t a substitute as it was just another form of sugar! But with the ideas and knowledge at that time 30 years ago, this was deemed a suitable additive for diabetics. I also remember having discussions with my Grandfather about how much wine he drank. His theory being that the sugar was burnt up in the making process and so it was absolutely fine! It’s amazing how as diabetics we can persuade ourselves something is fine when we really want to! He was particularly good at this!

I also remember my Grandfather replacing sugary foods for carb-heavy foods in his daily diet, filling up with extra bread and potatoes in his meals instead. Now I know this is obviously one of the worst things he could have done, but it just goes to show how ideas and knowledge have changed over the years since this advice initially came from a dietician of the time.

I always thought if I became diabetic (which was always a pretty high risk in our family), that I actually would manage quite well because I have never had a sweet tooth and so wouldn’t find it hard to alter my dietary habits. I’d always rather have a sandwich or a packet of crisps than a bag of sweets or chocolate. My annual Easter eggs as a child were always still on the side come August, untouched! Of course that was before low carb diets became the way to go! Little did I know!

Then came my diagnosis in 2008. It was at this point that my world became a lot more focused specifically on diet. As a result I found myself doing hours of reading online about the latest advice, determined to conquer this thing and discovered the new and wonderful world of low carb! I had not heard of this before and by now my Grandfather had been gone for almost 10 years, so I had not been overly focused on the diabetic scene as perhaps I once had. My Mum is a T1 and so her diet had always been treated a bit differently to my Grandfather’s anyway, although it probably shouldn’t have been! This has of course changed now.

I remember being means tested for a grant from the council shortly after being diagnosed and putting down that I needed consideration financially to be able to eat a fresh, healthy diet of home cooked foods as opposed to perhaps cheaper, ready meals and processed foods. The lady at the council only focused on what diabetic products would be available for me to buy – she seemed particularly fixated on diabetic jam for some reason. This was the first time that I realised that those cupboards full to bursting of “diabetic products” no longer existed and more importantly, why!

Would life be much easier if we simply could just replace everything with a “substitute”? A lot of people think that’s what we do, just by having artificial sweeteners instead of sugar products but its simply not that easy is it? I for one, find my blood sugar reacts just as much to sweeteners as it does to sugar anyway and I do not like the idea of using something “artificial” at the best of times! But even if we were just to do that, that doesn’t take into account the newest research about carbs.
When I was first diagnosed and found out about low carb I took things extremely seriously. Too seriously probably, determined to beat this thing controlling my life. I was eating less than 1000 calories a day and counting every carb unit 3 times over. It worked though and within 7 weeks, to everyone’s amazement, my totally out of control diabetes was back under control and my under threat kidneys were healing.

I continued to be controlled by every single drop or bite that passed my lips for about a year. It controlled every minute of every day, my every waking thought. I never allowed myself a treat or to relax in any way. My diabetes was doing fantastically but that also meant I never went out anywhere, or even to a friends house for coffee! My diabetes might have been under control but I also had no life.

My family and GP saw this and started to try to tell me that I needed to learn to maintain my diabetes control, but still have a life. I was always told by doctors that diabetes should not rule my life. But it has taken me a long time to learn how to find that happy medium where it doesn’t, but you still maintain good control.
There are ways to cheat and substitute things in your diet, but I have personally found that the better way for me is not to substitute, but just to limit the bad things. Sugar doesn’t have to be evil, it just has to be very carefully moderated. Carbs don’t have to be monsters either, you just need to learn the good ones from the bad ones and how to balance meals to even them out. Education and good advice are an absolute must and seem to be all too often lacking in our system.

Looking back on the newly diagnosed me now as we reach World Diabetes Day, I see someone who thought food would forever rule my life and not in a good way. I didn’t enjoy or look forward to food anymore, it was just another part of my diabetes, a means to an end and a pain. That’s probably still the case to a degree but now I see that it doesn’t all have to be bad and it doesn’t need to control your world to the point that it takes over everything. There are plenty of great recipes available and with a few adjustments to portion size or balancing out meals, you can eat a fairly normal diet which means eating out or eating with friends and family isn’t such an issue and no one will probably even notice!

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