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Living With Diabetes

The Sweet Life...Without the Sweet Stuff

When my doctor called two years ago to say my blood sugar was 240, I wasn’t sure what the number meant. But I suspected it wasn’t good news.

I’d just turned 50, the age at which my father and two uncles were diagnosed with diabetes after decades of eating lots of sugar, pan cubano, and the mandatory mountain of white rice at dinner — a dietary tradition I had continued. And I had been thirsty and waking up at night to urinate — classic symptoms of diabetes.

It turns out that in middle-aged adults, 126 milligrams/dl (per deciliter) or higher of blood glucose after fasting overnight is considered diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). My level — which was almost twice that — didn’t make me scared of dying. I knew diabetes could be controlled because my dad, then 82, was eating a lot less of everything and, as a result, had not experienced complications from the disease.

Instead, I was scared of living. Enjoying tasty meals with family and friends had become a great pleasure in my life.

I talked to my doctor and did research to see if I could still savor the food I loved but in ways that wouldn’t blind me, make me lose a limb, or kill me — all possible with diabetes. Then I put together a meal plan. Each item had to meet two conditions: it had to be delicious and healthful. I was an expert on identifying the former but clueless about the latter.

So are a lot of other Hispanics. Overall, we’re more than one and a half times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to suffer from diabetes. Genetics may play a role, according to experts. Yet an axiom among people in diabetes education is, “Heredity loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Environment means exercise and diet. Although our eating habits vary, diabetes experts agree that many U.S. Hispanics eat too much refined flour and sweets — carbohydrates that pull the trigger. (Too many Hispanics are also overweight, but more about that later.)

Lorena Drago, who wrote the ADA’s Spanish-English guide for Hispanic diabetics, Algo mas que arroz con frijoles: La guía caribeña de alimentos saludables para personas con diabetes/Beyond Rice and Beans: The Caribbean Latino’s Guide to Eating Healthy With Diabetes, says Hispanics “put too many processed foods in our mouth.” My goal was to follow Drago’s recommendation of 60 - 75 carbohydrate grams a meal, based on three meals a day, for diabetic men. (She recommends 45 - 60 for women.)

I cut the easy stuff first. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so skipping dessert took zero effort. More difficult was reducing the half plate of rice I had eaten almost daily for as long as I could remember; I went down to a third of a plate. Bread was difficult, too, after decades of gorging on two basketfuls at a time; my new limit became four pieces at dinner.

I didn’t worry about calories. Though I knew obesity makes diabetes worse, I didn’t think I had a weight problem. At five feet nine inches, I weighed 175 to 180 pounds. I figured keeping calories around 2,000 per day would be fairly easy.

Then I designed a diet based on six fundamentals:


 Eat less of everything except vegetables.


 Eat more veggies, following this standard guideline: fill half a dinner  plate with vegetables; one quarter with carbohydrates such as rice, beans, or a tortilla; and one quarter with meat, chicken, fish, or other protein.


 Give up what I don’t miss — soda, candy bars, and cake—to make room for carbohydrates I enjoy.


 Substitute whole- or sprouted-grain bread for Italian baguettes and pan cubano. Eat whole-grain tortillas, wraps, and cereals.


 Mix green, red, yellow, white, and black or dark-blue foods, which provide a range of nutrients and look appetizing.


 Go organic Hispanic. As often as possible, eat natural food not treated with chemicals. The staple beans of Latin America and Mexican tortillas are now available in organic versions.

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