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Diabetes and me: being creative with food

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It probably won’t be surprising to find that I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Not just as in “oh my god, how many carbs are in that handful of raspberries”, but also “I wonder if the protein in it would absorb better if I heated it more”.

Megan Whelan.
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

I love food and not just eating. I am fascinated by recipes, science, the culture of food. I like words like maillard, mirepoix, emulsion. I’m fascinated that it’s so fundamental to our lives, and yet we’re so willing to sacrifice the joy of it for some arbitrary definition of “health,” or worse, a magazine’s definition of beauty.

One of my favorite things to make is choux pastry (think eclairs, profiteroles, donuts). Not just because I can be super pretentious and call it choux pastry, but because it’s complicated to make. Getting it right takes time, understanding what’s going on with the flour and liquid, getting the heat right, adding the eggs little by little and mixing hard – I like to do it by hand so I can be even more sufficient when I get it right. It’s part skill, part science, part luck. And when it’s good, it’s so good: light and crunchy and delicious.

Attempt to make a tower of lightning called croquembouche.

The lopsided, not-so-tall Lightning Tower was a “hilarious, delicious, and ridiculous failure,” writes Megan Whelan.
Photo: Provided

Once, for my birthday, a friend and I tried to make a croquembouche (a tower of cream-filled profiteroles covered in caramel). In a bach kitchen with an unknown oven and few utensils. It was a hilariously delicious and ridiculous failure. I have never laughed so much in a kitchen.

For a while, my type 2 diabetes took away that love, that curiosity, that willingness to experiment and fail. I can’t eat pastry, or sourdough, or pasta, or all the things that I liked to try to see if I could create in my kitchen. So why bother, I thought?

And you know what? It sucked. It took away one of the ways I feel most creative and intelligent. That I can turn flour, water, and olive oil into bread in hours, with just a bowl, a spoon, and an oven, I feel capable in a way few other things can.

For the first three months after my diagnosis, I cooked with as few carbohydrates as possible. I bought cookbooks and scoured the internet. I replaced white rice with brown, potatoes with kūmara, ramen with edamame noodles.

Tracking and weighing everything I ate was hurting my brain – more on that in a few weeks. But the hardest part was feeling like I was cooking just to deal with my condition; that diabetes ruled my culinary life. I missed planning a menu to cook for the people I loved, even though I had to figure out how to manage what I could personally eat from it.

Enter the choux pastry again. One day I was looking for lunch and was at a local French cafe. Armed with the dietician’s new knowledge that protein would help my body manage carbohydrates, it occurred to me that a gougère (puff pastry with added cheese) filled with smoked salmon and salad was not a bad option. An egg pastry has to be higher in protein than a baguette, right? (Yes, but also much higher in fat. And still quite a few carbs.)

This realization led to a much better place. I can still be creative with my food. I just had to change my way of thinking.

A few things worked for me. It’s not a TikTok “what I eat in a day” style. (Mostly because I feel like these are almost always doctored, and because what looks like a reasonable diet for one person may be terrible for another). I am not qualified to give dietary advice.

The first is planning.

No meal prep, in particular, but thinking about what I might want to eat in a week. I sit down on a weekend and go through my favorite cookbooks and sites and choose five dishes I’d like to cook. Then I make a big store with all the ingredients I need, plus snacks, protein bars, and all the other things my life needs now. I try to find things that have interesting techniques, cuisines that I’m unfamiliar with, or ingredients that are unfamiliar to me.

This means that when I come home I know what I can cook and I can choose between several things. I’m much more likely to cook when I’m not coming home and looking at a pile of ingredients and having to figure out what to do with them. It feels like, for some reason, more mental load than I can handle.

I often think about what my grandmothers would do with it, and it’s shameful. With all the resources at my fingertips, deciding what to eat seems too difficult. Boohoo, I figure you got all that food, but no motivation.

But the other thing that helped is chilling the hell out of it all. Overthinking my diet was causing far more damage to my mental health than positives to my physical health.

It’s normal that cooking dinner every night is something I find difficult. I know that I am not alone in this case. There’s enough hard stuff going on in the world right now that I’m cutting myself – and you if you will – some slack.

I motivate myself to go to the gym, take my medicine, drink my water and manage my stress. My diet is just one utensil, albeit an important one, in my diabetic kitchen. It can sometimes be put on hold. Getting it right once in a while is much better than not trying at all.