As Amy Dyer has been researching recipes and learning what to cook for her husband, recently diagnosed with diabetes, she lamented: "The Food Network needs a show about cooking for diabetics."
It's not exactly a cooking show, but for Dyer and others who plan meals with a diabetic in mind, a class next month at the Sedgwick County Extension Office could be a useful resource.
Jan McMahon, a K-State Research and Extension agent, initially developed Dining with Diabetes about 15 years ago as a way to help individuals and families like hers who needed to rethink their meal plans because of diabetes.
Her oldest daughter was diagnosed with the condition at age 3. As she listened to dietitians and others talk about food during diabetes education classes, she started to think that there may be ways to still incorporate family favorites into their meals.
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"With my nutritional background, I kept thinking of alternatives," said McMahon, who has a master's degree in home economics with a concentration in nutrition and human development.
Now she shares 150 recipes — including healthier alternatives to such comfort foods as mashed potatoes and the typically carb-loaded pasta dishes — with those who take the class.
"All have been tried and used many times," McMahon said.
She also talks about the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar, the role of proteins, reducing fats and sodium, cooking with sugar substitutes and using herbs and spices to make food "fun and flavorful." She even covers food safety issues, since diabetics can be susceptible to food-borne illnesses because of a compromised immune system, McMahon said.
Learning the systems
Diabetics closely monitor their food intake to keep their blood sugar under control, with carbohydrates playing a big factor because they have the biggest impact on blood sugar levels.
Because a diabetic's meal planning is closely related to one's lifestyle and the individual's medication for the disease, there are a number of meal planning systems to choose from, such as the plate system, carbohydrate gram counting and an exchange system, according to experts.
Each recipe in McMahon's handout includes nutritional information for those systems to take the math out of the equation for meal planners.
And she's updated the handouts to reflect the USDA's recent change from the food pyramid to MyPlate since another system was based on the food pyramid.
Dyer and her husband use the plate system, which calls for a particular division of food types on a plate, and carb-counting.
Sheryll Clarke, a Wichita Clinic dietitian, suggested the couple purchase 8-inch plates — often labeled salad plates — to help with portion control.
The average dinner plate in America is usually 10 to 10 1/2 inches. Now, vegetables fill half of the Dyers' 8 1/2-inch plates, with a protein dish and a starch or carbohydrate dish evenly splitting the other half, which is the configuration used in the plate system.
With the carb-counting system, one has to pay attention to the number of carbohydrate grams allowed at each meal. Usually a dietitian helps determine the levels based on factors such as one's blood sugar and activity levels. This system requires a lot of nutrition label-reading, which has become an eye-opening experience for Dyer, she said.
Wichitan Candy Cain, who has lived with diabetes for 47 years, has used the exchange system in the past, but now uses a point system that is based on calorie- and carb-counting. With the exchange system, one "exchanges" certain food choices for another among the categories of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
"If you do anything long enough, you get good at it," Cain said about choosing which system to use.
What each system has in common is that it involves making better, healthier food choices.
That, along with moderation and monitoring, are key for a diabetic, said Clarke and diabetes nurse practitioner Diana Guthrie of Mid-America Diabetes Associates.
A diabetic's meal plan actually can be good for family members and friends, too.
When Guthrie hears a diabetic say they prepare separate meals for themselves and the rest of the family, "I ask them 'Don't you want your family to be eating as healthy as you?' I tell them what you're learning is what everyone should be doing."
Portion control, another key factor for diabetics, can benefit a non-diabetic, as well, Clarke said.
It's paid off for Dyer, the mother of a 6-month-old son, who said she has lost inches following the new meal plans she's implemented for her and her husband, Aaron. He has lost 30 pounds in the six weeks since his diagnosis. Many of their current meals include grilled lean meats and grilled vegetables, reflecting the popular summertime method of cooking.
Meeting with dietitians and taking advantage of diabetes education classes will help a diabetic learn about consuming empty calories or that it's better to eat an apple rather than drink its juice — because the fruit provides fiber, too — or that a banana's stage of ripeness affects its carb level.
"Since medication doesn't have a brain, for the person it's knowing how much and what kind of food you should intake," said Guthrie.
A newly diagnosed diabetic usually is advised to take a diabetes education class, but taking refreshers or getting additional education — such as the Dining with Diabetes class — is important, too, Clarke and Guthrie said. As one lives with the disease, they will see that food choices and portions can change, Guthrie noted.
Cain, who now is on an insulin pump 24/7, said she used to eat watermelon all the time as a kid.
"Now that I'm 56 years old, I can't eat it at all."
Cain, however, has a healthy outlook on her food choices and advises others to do the same: "Look at what you can have and not on what you can't."
If You Go: Dining with Diabetes
What: Foods, including both meal-time and snack items, will be available to sample.
When: Two separate classes, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. July 12 and 5:30 to 9 p.m. July 14.
How much: $25 per person, which includes a set of 150 recipes. The cost for couples who share one set of recipes is $35.
Where: Both classes will be in the Sedgwick County Extension Center's Sunflower Room, 701 W. 21st St.
To register: For information or to enroll, call 316-660-0127. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited.