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Diabetic cooking brings flavor and variety back to the kitchen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- When Chef Chris Smith was diagnosed with diabetes seven years ago, his physician advised him to drop out of culinary school and find a new vocation altogether.
"My doctor said it would be just too hard to work around all that food," he says.
Instead, Smith decided to put his professional experience to use. He began conducting diabetic cooking seminars and is set to release his first cookbook in June. "Cooking with the Diabetic Chef" is a guide to eating that strives to add intense flavors to food without adding fat, salt and sugar.
"I want to break barriers," Smith says. "Most people might have two or three chicken recipes that they know how to make. I want to give them a whole library of ways to prepare chicken. I want to show diabetics that there is variety."
"We don't want the diabetic diet to be a sentence," agrees registered dietician Margaret Fowke. "That is probably the biggest concern diabetics have when they are first diagnosed. They say, 'Oh my gosh, I can't have my fried chicken and my chocolate chip cookies.' We feel they must have some flexibility in their diet plans."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15.7 million Americans, or 5.9 percent of the general population, have diabetes. Nearly a third of those people have yet to be diagnosed. For newly diagnosed diabetics, the shock of having to change tried and true eating habits is hard to digest.
Specially designed cookbooks can help. The recipes in these publications may vary from fancy-shmancy to downright homey, but the message is the same: Choice, flexibility and good food don't disappear just because you have diabetes.
Making eating transitions without fear
When 48-year-old Bernice Moore was diagnosed with Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes last year she was afraid to eat much of anything for two weeks. Moore had a strong family history of diabetes -- two of her sisters and her mother suffer from the disease -- but when the familiar symptoms began affecting her, she thought at first she was just working too hard.
"When I saw the symptoms I was sort of shocked," she says, "but then I realized the extreme thirst, the burning eyes, the blurry vision -- it had to be diabetes."
Moore was afraid some of her favorite foods might be aggravating her condition. She often ate fruits like bananas and apples for snacks and even meals, and she panicked at the thought of not being able to follow her usual eating habits. The most difficult part of the transition, she recalls, is that she considered herself a smart, healthy eater prior to diagnosis. Having to limit her fruit intake was a major adjustment.
Fowke, who worked with Moore to construct a workable eating plan that also includes some of her favorite fruits, recommends a newly diagnosed diabetic see a dietician as soon as possible. She also emphasizes the importance of a regular exercise plan and finding ways to incorporate more vegetables and fiber in your diet.
Fowke says you don't have to buy a special cookbook to maintain a healthy diet, but the specialized recipes can help you figure out how to make those peas and carrots a little more exciting.
"Type 2 diabetics should remember they are not on a special diet, rather they are on a diet that works for everybody," says Elizabeth Hiser, who recently penned the cookbook "The Other Diabetes: Living and Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes."
"I think the most important thing for the Type 2 diabetic is calorie control and getting to the point where your weight is good," Hiser says. She emphasizes that the quality of a diet has to be high if people hope to stick with the changes and still feel satisfied.
Boosting fiber and flavor
While both the Asian and Mediterranean diets are recommended for people trying to control sugars and fats, the Asian diet -- with its emphasis on rice, vegetables and fish -- can seem stark to people used to traditional American fare.
By contrast, the Mediterranean diet is rooted in complex carbohydrates like pastas, polenta and grains. The diet also calls for using olive oil and canola oil because they are both low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, or the "safe fat." For this reason, many of Hiser's recipes revolve around tasty grilled vegetables and whole-wheat pastas.
She suggests in her book that planning meals around unprocessed grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits and striving to make each meal contain lots of fiber will boost energy, decrease blood sugar levels and leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied.
In addition to a wealth of light, herb-laced recipes in her book, Hiser also suggests re-thinking the pantry. She lists a while host of items that can quickly add dimension to last-minute meals or snacks.
"My goal was to show that you can have things in your freezer and cupboards -- convenient things -- and still eat well. Frozen greens are great to put in soups. They not only add a lot more fiber and vitamins," she said, "but you get a lot of taste in there as well."
Hiser suggests defrosting frozen vegetables, tossing them with a vinaigrette and sprinkling some feta cheese over the top for a quick, easy salad. "Rinse chickpeas and toss them with some chopped onion, vinaigrette, roasted red peppers and toasted walnuts. ... It makes a wonderful dish."
Smith says making vegetables taste good is really a matter of knowing a few classic techniques. He urges people learn how to saute, grill and poach their foods to enhance flavors. For example, Smith says carrots take on a whole new character if you boil them to the tenderness desired, remove them from the water and then reduce the water you cooked them in down to a sauce.
"To exaggerate the flavors of the carrot," he says, "grate some orange zest and add a dash of white pepper to the reduction." After cooking the glaze down to just a tablespoon of liquid, Smith suggests coating the carrots with the liquid for a new twist on the standard vegetable.
Satisfying the ever-hungry sweet tooth
And what should diabetics do about sugar? Is the sweet stuff permanently banned from dining tables and kitchens everywhere?
"That is an old myth," says Hiser, "and we have a hard time trying to get rid of it. People still can't understand that table sugar is not going to raise blood sugar levels as much as too many calories will."
Sugar can still be part of a well-planned diet, if eaten in small amounts and incorporated into a healthy diet with regular exercise.
"If you take some fruit and sprinkle some sugar over it and bake it in the oven," Hiser says, "that is not going to send your blood sugar over the edge."
Fowke points out that there are many sugar substitutes on the market today that are safe, easy to cook with and that taste good, too.
"Fifteen years ago there weren't very many options," she says, "but today there are so many sugar-free foods on the market, and a good meal plan will have those foods blended into it."
But Smith, who prides himself on working with authentic ingredients, advocates using the real thing. "Stay away from the sugar substitutes," he says. "Go as natural as you can." Smith says working with basic ingredients like raw sugar allows you to know exactly what you are putting in your body and the effect these foods have on your blood sugar.
One of his favorite desserts is an elegant chocolate cake and fruit concoction. To construct the dessert, use a glass to punch out two round pieces of cake from a chocolate sheet cake. Next, moisturize the cake by lightly brushing a favorite liqueur like Kahlua or Grand Marnier on it using a pastry brush.
"If you don't want to use a liqueur," Smith says, "then take peaches canned in their own juice, puree them in a blender and lightly brush that on the cake."
Next, add fresh blueberries or blackberries on top of one layer and top it with the second layer of cake. Finish off your creation with more fresh fruit and garnish with a tiny dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of chocolate shavings.
"It looks spectacular," he says, "and you've got a lot of fresh fruit in that dessert."
Smith emphasizes portion size. For instance, in the dessert above he uses real chocolate cake and whipped cream. "But notice the portion size," he adds.
Diabetes: a family affair
Seven years after his initial diagnosis, Smith says the disease was ultimately a giant stroke of good luck.
"I am thankful that it is a disease that is controllable," he says. "It has allowed me to apply my professional expertise with my personal life, and to prepare good food for people who need it most."
Smith thinks back to a Thanksgiving dinner in 1993, just after he had been diagnosed with diabetes. Nearly 50 family members were gathered around a huge, mouth-watering spread of homemade food. Aside form the traditional recipes, his family had also prepared special foods for "Chris the diabetic."
"It was really alienating for me," he says. Although Smith appreciated the effort his family made to care for him, he rarely forgets what it was like to feel like the odd man out.
Because of that, Smith urges family members get involved in the dietary changes required of a diabetic. After all, the diet is a healthy, well-balanced approach to eating for anyone. Armed with some creative recipes and classic cooking techniques, it can be a delicious change for everyone around the dinner table.
Being overweight creates a heavy risk for diabetes
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
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