Monday, November 21, 2011

Healthy Living Update & a Few Thoughts on Holiday Eating

As anyone who knows me or has read my last blog post knows, I've been trying low-carb eating as a way to control my blood sugar. I've lost 30 pounds since my surgery. Right now, I'm maintaining that weight loss.

I've discovered that my blood sugar readings get better the longer it's been since the surgery. The illness, the shock to my body of having the operation, and overall stress were all partly behind the super high readings I had back in June. However, I don't have normal blood sugar, so I do need to keep track of my diet, exercise, stress levels, etc. and keep taking the readings to make sure I'm on track. The past few days I've been noticing slightly higher blood glucose numbers, although still below my target number. That tells me I need to back off the total daily carb count a bit. If I want to lose more weight, I need to reduce the carbs significantly.

The holidays are super hard for people with special dietary needs. Holiday food doesn't fit most of the special diets many people are following. it's loaded with carbs, fat, sugar, gluten, nuts-basically everything that often people's health says they shouldn't eat. If you're trying to lose weight and don't have any health issues, you can decide to maintain over the holidays to allow yourself a few indulgences. But, if your overall health is at stake, relaxing your vigilance is not an option.

My body doesn't care if it's Thanksgiving or Christmas or my birthday or a holiday party or whatever. It's going to respond to the food I eat, my exercise level, the stress, etc. exactly the same as it does when it's not Thanksgiving or Christmas or my birthday or a holiday party or whatever. And that's the difference between being on a weight loss diet, as I have for a lot of my life, and working to maintain the best health I can. It's a different attitude. I can't tell myself, "I'll start the diet again on New Year's Day." Or even, "I'll start it again tomorrow." When faced with the temptation to eat more carbs than I should, I have to remind myself why I don't do that anymore.

The other problem is that, for the most part, the recipes I've found for low-carb eating are boring and unappealing. The carb count varies from super low-carb to "this is low carb?". The recipes in cookbooks for diabetics tend to be better in terms of quality, but way too high in carbs. When I ate the recommended diabetic diet, my blood sugar was way too high. This challenged me to find a way to eat well, while keeping my blood sugar within the range that will keep me healthy. I'm discovering that I can eat real food, including some foods that seemed to be automatically "off-limits", as long as I balance the carbs at the meal and throughout the day.

I realized I'd have to develop a new attitude. Moaning about what I "can't" eat anymore just makes me want to eat that food. I'm telling myself that I can eat it, but choose not to right now. Or I plan an appropriate serving size into my meal plan. There are tradeoffs. I can't eat high-carb foods in normal size servings without messing up my blood sugar. No super-size piles of stuffing and mashed potatoes. But I can eat some turkey skin on Thanksgiving, which is one of my favorite things. I can eat a tablespoon or two of the stuffing & mashed potatoes. I can eat a bite or two of dessert. It's a matter of choosing carefully and really enjoying what I eat. Again, it's that positive perspective that makes a difference.

With that attitude in place, I realized I'd have to adapt my recipes to cut the carb count. I'd have to plan my meals around a target amount of carbs and if one course is higher, the rest have to be lower. I know there's a big hype about eating complex carbs instead of refined carbs, but my blood sugar readings don't seem to care much what type of carb I'm eating. I choose mostly complex carbs because I like them better.

People keep talking to me about the glycemic index and glycemic load. They oversimplify it into "don't eat white foods". Ummm...cauliflower is white and it makes a wonderful low-carb puree. Brown sugar is not white and it can easily become a carb nightmare. Some foods that mess up my blood sugar are low on the glycemic index or have a low glycemic load. It's a complicated food plan to follow because what you eat with what affects the glycemic load. It's complicated to follow and there are way more foods they don't have the numbers on than foods on the list. It doesn't make enough of a difference to be worth the time spent working out the glycemic load of everything I eat and sticking to foods on the glycemic index list is super limiting. It's much easier to choose mostly complex carbs and keep track of the carb counts. That is working fine, so I'll stick with doing it that way.

Sometimes cutting the carbs in a recipe is hard. So I cut as many as I can. Then I cut the serving size down until the carb count fits my plan. I fill out the meal with low carb items and it's fine. The American Heart Association says to use meat as a condiment. That advice sends my blood sugar through the roof. So, I've turned it around. I use carbs as a condiment and thinking about it that way really helps keep it in perspective. It also helps me in figuring out how to revise recipes. I was making a pasta and peas dish, both of which have a lot of carbs. I substituted whole wheat pasta, reduced the amount of pasta and peas, and added cut up sausages. Even though the serving size ended up smaller, it was enough.

Eating out is much easier on a low-carb diet than it was on a low-fat diet. I love to get cheesesteak sandwiches and a salad. I take the meat, cheese, and vegetables off the bread.  At a Mexican restaurant, fajitas without the tortillas work the same way. It's easy to tell the waiter not to bring the bread, or put it at the other end of the table if I'm with people who want it, because I remind myself of what I will enjoy instead of eating that bread. I can eat a bite or two of dessert, if the people I'm with get some and are willing to share, as long as the rest of my meal is low-carb.

There are days when I don't want to do this anymore. Those are the hardest days. I remind myself what the consequences of not doing it are and remind myself what good things I have to look forward to. And mostly I stay on track. No one is perfect, but somehow, it's easier when the readings remind me every day that what I'm doing is paying off. I noticed that if I take a break from measuring my blood glucose, I tend to restrict my diet too much because I don't have that number to reassure me that I'm doing OK. So, I take the readings and adjust as I need to in order to stay within my target range.

I'm cooking a pretty traditional Thanksgiving meal this week. I think that's why I decided to write this post. I wanted to give myself a pep talk to help me get through it without messing up my health. I'm fine with cooking food for other people that doesn't fit easily into my food plan. I'll figure out the carb counts and figure out my serving sizes and have a great meal. For us food people, Thanksgiving is first about the food because it takes a lot of planning to pull it off. But without other people to eat it with, it's not nearly as much fun. We're having around 10 people and I'm looking forward to enjoying the party.