How I Learned to Love Low-Carb Eating as Someone with Type 1 Diabetes

-Ross Wollen

I’m a chef, so food is my passion. Imagine my dismay, then, when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last year at age 36.

It was one thing to learn I’d need insulin for the rest of my life. That fate, curiously, was easy to accept, as what choice did I have? But as a foodie, my greatest passions in life are to cook well and eat rapturously. It terrified me to learn I now needed to carefully monitor my carbohydrate consumption. Would diabetes change everything?

It did — and this is how I negotiated my new reality and how, surprisingly, I found myself eating better than ever before.

Several years before my diagnosis, I had been the executive chef of a restaurant group in California that wanted to position itself on the vanguard of the low-carb and paleo diet fads. It was my job to know all about these diets and promote them, but I had no personal interest in carbohydrate restriction. I adored my starches and sweets, and didn’t understand why others willingly would give them up.

My occasional surveys of the low-carb blogosphere only bolstered my skepticism. Low-carb adherents favored unfamiliar combinations such as pizza crusts made of cheese and sandwiches with chicken breasts used as the bread.

Initially, I had no reason to doubt my doctor when he said I’d be able to eat the same way I always had. Carb counting would be easy for me; after all, I’d been writing professional recipes in Excel for years, meticulously weighing ingredients and tracking yields. Within days of my diagnosis, I had spreadsheets for my old favorite recipes with full macronutrient calculations.

Many people with diabetes sadly must retreat to the world of frozen and prepackaged meals, with their industrial consistency and FDA-mandated nutrition panels. And fresh ingredients can be expensive. It was a blessing that I had the experience and opportunity to continue cooking most of my meals from scratch.

But I was struggling mentally with trying to eat “normally”. New rituals of syringe, scale, and calculator rudely intruded on my cherished meal preparation. Family-style dining became less familiar when daddy’s carefully measured portion was set aside from the communal platter, not to be shared. And I shared a pre-dinner toast with one eye on the clock, mindful of the encroaching risk of hypoglycemia. Restaurant menus were minefields. And the more carb-heavy my meal, the more anxious I became about my glucose response. Eating normally simply didn’t feel normal at all.

It was sheer fatigue from these burdens that pushed me toward my first low-carb meals. Like many people with new diagnoses, I had been told to take one unit of Humalog for every 10g of net carbs I’d eat. But what if I ate a meal with virtually zero carbs?

So I ate my first carb-free lunch, didn’t inject, didn’t weigh my portion, and didn’t time my meal — and my stress evaporated. I know that my insulin requirements might change over time, but at the time I felt newly unencumbered by diabetes: for all intents and purposes, I did not have diabetes, even if only for one afternoon.

If I could eat like this regularly, nothing about my food would need to be as carefully timed, predictable or controlled. This, despite the menu restrictions, was what felt normal. And I soon found that the resultant blood sugars—a gentle delayed gluconeogenesis rise, with zero unexpected highs or lows—were a triumph. I was convinced.

My first low-carb meals were meager and unimaginative: cheese, salami, maybe some pickles or raw veggies on the side. It was hardly an exciting or sustainable meal plan. Convenient low-carb options can be scarce, and I realized that I’d need to start cooking much more frequently to bring some much-needed variety to my diet.

My efforts in the kitchen reaped immediate rewards, and soon I realized I actually was eating better than I had before my diagnosis. I was cooking almost every meal now, and the food was lavish and rich. I also felt incredibly healthy. My consumption of vegetables, nuts, healthy fats and seafood skyrocketed. (I have no compunction in grabbing my Humalog and indulging in real pasta or real ice cream, but these have become rare treats.)

I admit to dabbling in the dark arts of faux-carb cookery. I riced cauliflower and noodled zucchini. I baked almond flour cookies and coconut flour cakes. I erected a gluttonous tower of nachos with pork rinds in place of tortilla chips. But the truth is that I’m rarely satisfied by these dishes, which I cannot help but compare to their superior high-carb inspirations.

It’s often a disservice to the wide range of naturally low-carb ingredients to make them imitate other foodstuffs; they should be prepared to maximize their own unique culinary potential. Vegetables, meats and seafood can stand on their own without added sugar or simple starches. My new cooking goal is to prepare low-carb meals that are so delicious and satisfying that the absence of carbohydrates will not even be noticed. Nothing should taste like a compromise.

Recipe – Bacon, Avocado & Smoked Almond Salad

This Bacon, Avocado & Smoked Almond Salad is exemplary of the cooking that has been one of the unforeseen joys of my post-diagnosis life. One portion of this salad can be the major meal of the day—with no need for bread on the side. It has so few net carbs some people with diabetes might not need to bolus at all. A single portion should have about 16 grams of total carbs: 9 grams of fiber and 7 net carbs of the unprocessed, slow variety.

Ripe avocado—that impossibly luxurious fruit, full of healthy fats and fiber—is the critical ingredient. I scatter sliced avocado into the salad bowl and toss it with the other ingredients, causing some of the slices to smash and spread and marry with the lemony dressing. Substantial greens, such as baby kale, can stand up to the creaminess without wilting, and impart their own distinct healthful flavors. Bacon should be just-cooked, chopped and mixed in while still warm and glistening. Smoky nuts amplify the bacon’s sweetness and add the right crunch. The combined effect is simultaneously luscious, fulfilling and wholesome.

The homemade vinaigrette recipe makes nearly a pint, enough for several salads, and it keeps well in the refrigerator. One can easily substitute a store-bought Caesar dressing.

Bacon, Avocado & Smoked Almond Salad For Two:

4 cups hearty salad greens (baby kale, arugula, mixed lettuces)

6 strips thick-sliced bacon, freshly cooked, chopped into bite-sized pieces

One avocado, sliced

Smoked almonds, 2 oz. (scant ½ cup), roughly chopped

Lemon vinaigrette, 5 tablespoons, see recipe below

Toss and enjoy.

Lemon Vinaigrette:

1 cup olive oil

Juice of 2 lemons

¼ cup white vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon mustard (whole grain or Dijon)

1 small shallot, peeled and roughly chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)

Fresh black pepper to taste

Combine all in blender and pour over salad. 

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