Eating Right: Important food for thought for managing type 1 diabetes
March is Nutrition Month in Canada and this year’s public campaign is themed Unlock the Potential of Food. Throughout the month, dietitians across the country will help Canadians realize the potential of food to fuel, discover, prevent and heal. As individuals with different needs, the goal is to take responsibility for our own health, and to determine the best ways to feed our body and to maintain our well-being.
Chris Cornish knows first-hand how poor nutrition – especially when coupled with a serious health condition like type 1 diabetes (T1D) – can lead to devastating consequences. The Montreal native played tennis competitively when he was first diagnosed at the age of 14 in 1990. Familiar with the symptoms because his younger sister had the disease, Chris dismissed them to focus on his sport until his parents convinced him to see a doctor. A young teenager always on the go, he remembers how he struggled with counting carbs and monitoring his insulin injections.
“I was very angry,” recounts Chris. “I had a hard time accepting the news because I was at the start of my teenage years. My diet took some time to figure out as well, since I needed to find the foods that worked for me and the corresponding insulin dosages. Being a competitive athlete with T1D also had its share of challenges. The physical activity helped to keep my sugar levels relatively normal when I was not as diligent with my injections or my food choices, but I had to be constantly sipping juice while I played (tennis).”
Johanna Balge is a registered dietitian and a pediatric diabetes educator at the Scarborough and Rouge Hospital. For the past 11 years, she has helped families learn how to manage food and insulin requirements and activities following a diagnosis of T1D.
“One of the most common challenges for young people newly diagnosed is not being able to eat freely without thinking, which is why I encourage families to take a balanced approach to food and diabetes,” says Balge. “Promoting a variety of healthy foods, but also including some treats if that was part of their normal eating habits is important, as is understanding how to balance the foods they are eating with taking the right dose of insulin to match the food.”
Balge believes scheduling appointments with your diabetes team and a dietitian is crucial to proper T1D management.
“Share your goals and lifestyle with your healthcare team,” she recommends, “and work with them to figure out what makes sense for your needs.”
It was only after spending four years on a tennis scholarship in the US and little time managing his T1D that Chris saw his health seriously decline.
“I was 29 years old, and I was making very poor food choices and rarely testing my sugar,” he recalls. “I would wake up and immediately have a big glass of very strong iced tea, which would spike my sugar every single time, and I would spend much of the rest of the day trying to bring it down. I was also eating a lot of frozen and packaged foods with very little – if any – nutritional value. I gained weight and was stuck in a vicious cycle where my sugars were all over the place.”
According to Jill Middlemiss, a clinical dietitian and certified diabetes educator at British Columbia’s Children’s Hospital, nutrition in an individual with T1D is just as important as it is for the rest of the population in terms of adequate nutrients to keep the body healthy. Drinking soda is no more healthful for a person without the condition than it is for an individual with T1D; the immediate difference is that the person without T1D will not be confronted by a high glucose reading in response.
“Glucose readings for people living with T1D will vary depending on the types and amounts of foods they are eating,” explains Middlemiss, “which is more complex than simply the number of carbohydrates on the plate. Choosing healthy meals and snacks that include a variety of food types is a strategy that everyone in the family can benefit from, while also assisting with blood sugar levels. Additionally, flexible insulin schedules that encourage following feelings of hunger and fullness may help individuals to achieve desirable blood glucose levels and be happy with their food choices.”
Following a bone infection that almost cost him his foot and a diagnosis of severe diabetic retinopathy in 2010, Chris realized that it was time to make some major lifestyle changes. The iced tea and processed foods – once staples of his diet – were replaced with water, lean proteins and vegetables. Chris soon lost 70 pounds. However, the T1D had ravaged his vision and caused retinal detachment to the point where surgery became necessary.
“Our vision is something we all take for granted, and my diagnosis changed the way I think about and treat my diabetes,” Chris confides. “I underwent several procedures and also lost my sight for a time, which was the scariest experience ever. But I kept testing my sugars often while keeping my diet clean because I felt like my best chance at regaining my vision and getting back to my life was to get my diabetes as controlled as possible.”
Fortunately for Chris, his eyesight showed signs of improvement by 2012 and surgeries were no longer a regular occurrence. But then another harsh reality sunk in.
“Once my eyes stabilized, I realized that I could no longer see well enough to compete at nor teach tennis anymore, so I had to decide what to do,” Chris relates. “I knew that visually, I could handle things in close proximity to me, and I had always been interested in fitness and nutrition. A friend of mine suggested becoming a certified personal trainer and I was hooked!”
Chris completed his certification in 2014 and began volunteering as a personal trainer at the West Island YMCA. A year later, he signed on as a private trainer, and was recently hired as the supervisor for the weights room.
“Exercise has become part of my daily routine again, despite not being able to play tennis anymore,” says Chris. “It helps to keep my sugars at a normal level and to cope with some of the daily frustrations of living with diabetes. I also enjoy being a personal trainer because it allows me to help people with their health and self-image. Plus sharing what I went through might just motivate others to take better care of themselves.”
For information about nutrition and type 1 diabetes, talk to your diabetes educator and support team. To learn more about Nutrition Month in Canada and related activities in your area, visit the Dietitians of Canada website. As well, visit the JDRF home page for more informative articles on health and well-being.