Freedom of Food – by Andy Broomhead
One of my enduring memories of being diagnosed with diabetes is my first trip to the supermarket after hearing the news. What was normally a typical 30-minute student shopping trip took around 90 minutes whilst I diligently checked every single food label to find the food with the lowest fat and carbs that would fit into my student budget.
I started my treatment on two daily doses of mixtard insulin so any real notion of carb counting (which is overwhelmingly the norm these days) was alien to me. I don’t even recall being told a specific amount of carbs to eat at set times, though I’m sure I must have been.
Like most newly diagnosed people, I was pretty ignorant about diabetes and what that really meant I could/should be eating. The phrase “low fat, low sugar, high fibre” was drilled into me pretty early on and whilst it doesn’t have to be as restrictive as that all the time, it’s not bad advice to follow on the whole.
That first shopping trip was in all honesty so incredibly disheartening. The feeling of trying to make the best choices for yourself and ultimately not being able to see the wood for the trees is quite a daunting one. I remember staring at blocks of cheese for what felt like an eternity before entirely giving up on trying to buy any and walking away.
Of course the more you live with Type 1 diabetes, the more you understand what a range of choices you have and how to incorporate different foods into your diet. Switching to a basal/bolus regime helped me a lot as it gave me that freedom to adjust my own doses to account for more carb intensive foods that previously I’d steered well clear of.
That in itself is a bit of a double edged sword. We can spend so much of our time focusing on carb values that we neglect the calories. Whilst maintaining a health HbA1c level is obviously very important, having a healthy weight is also crucial if we want to reduce our risk of things like heart disease later in life.
I’d spent so long eschewing things like chips, pizzas and pasta that when I finally had ‘control’ over that delicious starchy goodness, it had long since occurred to me to watch for calories as well. We rightly talk so much about the importance of carb counting that sometimes the wider concerns around saturated fats, cholesterol and calories can be overlooked.
When I changed treatments to use an insulin pump I felt like I’d been given a level of control over my diet that I didn’t think possible. Previously, eating something like a takeaway pizza would always lead to high blood glucose levels the next morning, regardless of how much research I did into carbohydrate content.
I finally learned (10 years after my diagnosis), that foods with higher fat content will mean that the carbohydrate is absorbed more slowly (which is why chocolate is no good to treat a hypo). Having a pump that will deliver a particular insulin dose over a number of hours, and more accurately replicate the behaviour of a pancreas than a one off insulin dose, makes me more confident when it comes to eating those treat foods.
Of course there will always be some struggles when it comes to food. Eating out can be a complete minefield unless you’re eating something you’ve become really familiar with, or you have a copy of Carbs and Cals handy as a reference point. But hopefully such instances are pretty rare for most of us.
As people with diabetes, our lives are governed by what we eat. Looking back on that 12 year food journey, it’s reassuring to see that I’ve come a pretty long way from that downcast 21 year old who was overwhelmed with the stress of what to eat for the best. It’s not always easy and straightforward, never more so than when you’re first diagnosed, but it does get better. Embracing diabetes doesn’t mean we’re left pining for a slice of cake while chewing on carrot sticks; it just means we take an extra few seconds before we tuck in. It might even make it taste that little bit sweeter for us…