When I think back to the day I was diagnosed with diabetes, it no longer brings up the fearful memories it used to. As a happy and otherwise healthy eleven-year-old in Mountain View, California, I didn’t think much when I felt unusually tired and thirsty one week. While watching a ballet recital that weekend, a family friend noticed these symptoms and suggested that my mom take me to get tested for type 1 diabetes. We went straight to the hospital and knowing nothing about the disease, I sat crying on her lap while waiting for the results at a park nearby. The results were positive, and the doctor told me I would need to stay in the hospital to learn how to test my blood sugar, count carbohydrates, and—worst of all—give myself daily insulin injections; a hefty responsibility for a sixth grader. Because we caught it so early, this news was particularly devastating and hard to understand, since I didn’t even feel sick.
What I didn’t know at that point was the profound effect this diagnosis would have on my future; that it would turn me into a responsible, health-conscious adult and provide the foundation for a career as a small business owner with a truly personal connection to my product.
Diagnosed in children and young adults, type 1 diabetes is an unpreventable autoimmune disease caused by an overly-active immune system. There is no cure. Where many cases of type 2 diabetes can be treated through oral medication, type 1 is treated through insulin injections.
That week in the hospital, I learned the two most important factors in maintaining good control of my diabetes. They happen to be the same key factors in preventing type 2 diabetes: diet and exercise.
Exercise has the same effect on my body as insulin. The more I exercise, the lower my glucose levels and insulin needs. I am reminded of this every day when I feel first hand the blood glucose lowering effect of a cycling class or the profound effect twice-weekly BODYPUMP™ has on my insulin needs. In general, more muscle means a higher metabolism, and a higher metabolism means less insulin, which is a good thing for all of us.
A healthy diet is important to a diabetic—as it is to anyone—in preventing swings in blood glucose levels, which are profoundly influenced by high glycemic-index foods like white flour, corn syrup and starch. Sugar is not necessarily the enemy, but is just one item on a list of foods that affect blood glucose levels quickly and intensely.
Michael Pollan’s recent Q&A for the New York Times illustrates just how important a role low-GI foods play in any diet:
“What is the single best food we all should be eating every day?
Single best? Probably whole grains—they offer a lot that’s missing from the industrial diet, from fiber to important antioxidants and healthy fats. People who eat lots of whole grains are generally healthier and live longer than those who don’t.” Michael Pollaen, NYT Magazine, October 6, 2011
As an active, soccer-loving kid with a sweet tooth, it was more than a bummer to hear how much work was involved in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including watching what I ate for the first time in my life. I loved cookies and ice cream as much as the next kid, and was determined to fit them into my diet. The nurses at the hospital told me I should reduce my overall carbohydrate intake by switching to artificial sweeteners and whole grains. A well-meaning neighbor brought over some sugar-free candy containing the artificial sweetener sorbitol, but warned me not to eat them all at once because of the stomach ache I would likely get from the nasty chemical. After realizing that many low-sugar and sugar-free foods not only tasted fake but still contained a sizable amount of carbohydrates (because of white flour or other high-glycemic ingredients), my mom and I started experimenting with whole grains, since they have more fiber to slow down the absorption of glucose in my body (not to mention the added nutrients). We used whole wheat, oats and corn to make pancakes and waffles, bread, cookies, and one of our favorites, these muffins.
I continued baking with whole grains more and more, while becoming increasingly skeptical of foods that claimed to be “low-carb,” but had a long list of chemicals in the ingredients. I started adding ground nuts and pureed veggies (like pumpkin, carrots, and squash) to increase the protein and nutrients of my baked goods, while celebrating the delicious produce our area has to offer. My diabetes has caused me to become overly aware of everything I taste, nibble and chew, and makes me keep track of the effect each food has on my body. This gives me a unique perspective as I design recipes for healthier baked goods. After blogging forever about my baking experiments, I finally decided to open Grain Expectations here in Seattle – a whole grain and farm-to-table bakery with a seasonal menu. I hope you will take a moment to visit my blog for information about Grain Expectations’ partnership with Community Fitness, and give me the opportunity to bake for you.
See you at the studio!
Yours in health,