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Living With Diabetes

The Sweet Life...Without the Sweet Stuff

The meal plan combined my traditional Cuban food with a touch of international fine dining. I stayed on this diet for two years, and though I didn’t exercise much beyond the occasional walk, with the help of medication, my blood sugar remained under control. I was reasonably confident I was making good food choices.

But while writing this article, my doctor called to say my quarterly test showed that the glucose “sticking” to red blood cells (called glycocylated hemoglobin or hemoglobin A1c) was elevated—6.5 percent. Many doctors, including mine, like it below 6 percent; the ADA recommends below 7 percent.

I’m not facing a diabetic emergency, but I am going to follow doctor’s orders: I must push my number back down.

Was something wrong with my meal plan? I asked Drago and Maria Alamo, president of Salud Consulting, both registered dieticians who specialize in the diet of Hispanics with diabetes, to suggest improvements. Call it a pantry makeover.

Alamo entered my menu items into a computer program that measured carbohydrates, calories, vitamins, minerals, amino acids…everything. She said overall my plan was decent, but I needed to make better choices.

The real problems, the analysis revealed, were the so-called “good carbohydrates,” including whole grains and beans. I assumed their high fiber content meant I didn’t have to cut back. I was wrong. Alamo and Drago taught me that both the type and amount of carbs are important for controlling blood sugar.

All carbohydrates, they said, have an impact on blood glucose (sugar) levels—whether from whole grains, pan cubano, or Wonder Bread—and that my personal carbohydrate maximum should be 70 grams at each meal. My breakfast and lunches had been below that, but my dinners were higher. So from now on: three pieces of bread instead of four; one-third, not one-half, cup of cooked beans; and one-quarter, not one-third, cup of cooked white rice.

I also underestimated the importance of calories. Alamo suggested a goal weight of 165, because research shows that losing 10 to 15 pounds can lower blood sugar and blood pressure, even for people who aren’t obese. “Start by reducing your calories by 100 per day,” she said, adding that exercising more would help. Now six days a week I wake at 5 a.m. to run, lift weights, and do abdominal crunches. I’ve lost 10 pounds in a month, mostly from my waist, and put on muscle.

So I’ve revised my plan. Exercising and eating this way is now a must, though I cheat a little. The other day, for the first time since my diagnosis, I ate churros. Two churros every two years won’t hurt me physically, and eating sensibly every day won’t hurt me emotionally. I still enjoy meals with my loved ones. Diabetes has forced me to make changes, but I’m no longer scared of living.

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