Everyday meal solutions for balancing your blood sugar

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Though we read all the time about obesity and diabetes, and lots of us would love to lose a little weight or eat more healthy foods, sometimes it takes a little nudge to shift intention into action. About five years ago, my husband and I found ourselves confronted with a new and surprising challenge when he was diagnosed as pre-diabetic by his physician. At the time, we were in our early 40s, and we were knocked off balance by this news. It felt especially hard since we both work in the food business as a chef and pastry chef, and figured we spent enough time thinking about food without having to worry about what we were eating ourselves!

Turns out, that blas attitude, along with an extremely erratic eating schedule due to our crazy work hours, was precisely the problem. Though we may be chefs, and we knew how to cook, we needed to learn how to eat. Thanks to this wake-up call coming when it did, we actually were lucky to be able to immerse ourselves in lots of preventative knowledge before any major problems arose. In the years that have passed since we began this journey, besides radically changing the way that we cook and eat for ourselves and at our restaurant, we've also begun to recognize a pattern among our guests and staff; lots of folks are finding themselves in the same situation as we did. And they're just as lost and confused as we were. Time and again, we see guests arrive at the restaurant with that same helpless feeling that we had at the beginning, and we end up having a conversation that is ultimately helpful and comforting, though certainly not a medical prescription. We're not doctors and we have no medical training; we're regular people who happen to be cooks and a few pounds overweight and a bit shaken up by a mild diagnosis. We've had some time with this issue and we've come up with a few solutions that work for us. We, like many other folks these days, had to tackle a very basic and very important question: How do you balance what's on your plate and in your pantry to get back on track and stay there?

BEGIN WITH BREAKFAST

We rarely ate a "proper" breakfast before, despite always hearing that it was the most important meal of the day. Well, it turns out it really is the most important meal of the day! Not just to fuel you up, but what we've found is that it actually sets the tone for the rest of the day, energy-wise. A low-carb, filling breakfast means that we don't find ourselves with sugar cravings, or shaky or hungry, halfway through the morning. It's kind of a nice feeling not to be riding that high-carb, low-crash rollercoaster all day and a real breakfast is what sets out the pattern for the day. Toast with jelly, fruit, sweet yogurt or a scone will guarantee that we're feeling tired, hungry, grumpy or worse before we're near lunch time and also guarantees that we'll reach for a (likely unhealthy) snack before we get there.

So what in the world do you eat for breakfast in that case? Eggs are the obvious choice and a good one, for sure, since protein is key ( no toast or potatoes, though, sorry). But we also turn to smoked fish often, like trout, salmon, mackerel or kippers, spread on a low-carb cracker (sorry, no more bagel!) with some hummus, sliced sweet onion and tomato, or maybe some avocado if we happen to have a ripe one around. It's actually a delicious and an appealing breakfast. We also make our own granola now, too, though we realize that's more ambitious. Using a tiny bit of maple syrup or honey to sweeten it just barely enough, along with olive oil and plenty of cinnamon to give it a sweet-ish taste, we load up that granola with lots of nuts and seeds, coconut and just a few oats. With plain Greek yogurt and plenty of berries (berries, it turns out, are a fruit that doesn't spike your blood sugar, ditto green apples), it's also a super breakfast option and keeps us full and happy until lunch.

LUNCH AND DINNER PLATES

When we heard that we were supposed to keep away from bread (white or wheat), rice (ditto), potatoes (except sweet potatoes, I know, get your head around that one!), barley and most other grains we were positively bereft. So, we were left asking, what's left? What can we eat that we actually like? My husband, in particular, really slipped into a sad state: a Frenchman and a chef, this prescription really hit him hard.

Time to rally the spirits and stock the pantry on all the good stuff that's allowed. Quinoa, it turns out, as well as buckwheat, millet and einkorn, all are good grains for keeping blood sugar levels stable. We, of course, had to learn how to cook them well and find ways to make them delicious, but actually a rice cooker works perfectly to make quinoa, millet and einkorn berries nice and fluffy, and ready to be served with protein and vegetables as a pilaf tossed with saut ed onions or veggies, or thrown into a soup or made into a tabouli-like salad. Delicious. We highly recommend investing in a rice cooker, even if you can't have rice anymore.

Our nutritionist told us to imagine our plate with one-quarter lean protein and three-quarters different vegetables. Which vegetables? In fact, the best veggies, big surprise, are the cruciferous vegetables — kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, watercress. These veggies feed your blood and help curb carb cravings, as well as being particularly satisfying, i.e., they fill you up. Who knew? But any and all vegetables are good and great to substitute for all of the stuff we've had to eliminate.

SNACKS

This category remains challenging for us beyond the items we've already mentioned. Nuts were probably the thing that our nutritionist recommended the most, as well as any veggies you can blanch or cut up and carry around with you. Just remember to try to keep the carbs to a minimum, since that seems to get the rollercoaster going again, and the crash and snack habit returns ...

Is this basic advice good for everyone? Possibly, but only a doctor or nutritionist can give specific guidelines to each case. If there's one thing we've learned, it's that there's a ton of information about food and diet out there and so much of it is contradictory (and unpleasant if you love food, as we do). At the end of the day it's all extremely personal and comes down to what works for your lifestyle so that you can sustain the shift in your diet. If there's any comfort in hearing from a couple of regular people who try hard every day to feed themselves, their family and their customers with wholesome, real food, focusing on what makes sense and will keep you well without getting too complicated, then that's what we hope to offer. Bon appetit and bonne sant (good health)!

Rachel Portnoy is the co-owner and pastry chef at Chez Nous Bistro in Lee.


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