I like interviewing different people who strive for glucose numbers as close to normal as possible because if that’s what non-diabetics have then that’s what I feel I should work towards (taking in consideration all kinds of factors, of course). I’m not saying it’s the right decision for everyone, I’m just in the process of figuring out the best diet for me and I know others are on the same wavelength. I think it’s important that we keep dialogue open about this and by talking with those who feel they’ve made a great decision for themselves we can keep the learning and exchange alive.
Nathan Shackelford is an art teacher, husband, father of three kids, and has had type 1 diabetes for about 26 years. He also writes a great diabetes blog you can follow here. Nathan has been eating low carb for some time and I wanted to hear his perspective about it and see what we could learn.
Nathan, how long have you had type 1 diabetes?
I have been Type 1 since the summer of 1985, so it’s been about 26 years.
And how long have you been eating low carb?
I was motivated to qualify for life insurance in 2003, and going low-carb was one of the things that helped me to get my A1C under 7 so that I could be considered “healthy”. It worked. Besides better A1Cs I’ve also benefitted from feeling better and getting healthier overall. It’s surprising how many aspects of your life can be affected by poor blood sugar control.
How low carb do you go? About how many grams of carbs do you take in a day?
I go pretty low. My only carbs are usually things like almonds and avocados, and green vegetables. I’d guess that I consume 20-30 grams of carb a day. At this level, carb counting doesn’t have as much of an impact. I find that meals with more protein are the ones that require the most insulin.
Why do you think low carb is the right way to go for you, personally?
I’ve done it both ways, and haven’t been able to get good results with even moderate carb levels. I’ve experimented to see if I can include more carbs and use more insulin and the results always have me back with higher A1Cs. In the day to day, I don’t really see major differences, but the average control over time shows that it doesn’t work as well. For instance, this past summer I took a trip to Europe with a student travel program. I didn’t want to work too hard at getting special food items for myself at hotels with the language barrier, etc. so I ate some of the starchy carbs that came my way and used more insulin. When I got back from my trip I realized that my glucose control was off for most of my trip, and I had picked up a few extra pounds as well. My A1C for summer was up significantly.
What’s a typical meal look like?
I usually have eggs for breakfast, sometimes on top of a pile of arugula. My favorite lunches are tuna salad or chicken salad with greens. Dinners are usually chicken, beef or fish with broccoli or cauliflower and salad. We do a lot of ethnic foods at home, so those look pretty different.
Why do you think so many people with type 1 diabetes choose not to try going low carb?
I think many of us think of eating “normally” as the measure for living a normal life with diabetes. I think if we start defining living normally as having normal blood sugars, we will make changes to make it happen. Carbs are kind of addictive, and most people don’t realize that if you can go for 4-7 days without them, you can leave them behind.
Some people forget to point out that for people who eat low carb, many eat loads of vegetables, which technically, are high in carbohydrate. Are you one of these people who eats a lot of low impact veggies?
My diet doesn’t look vegetarian at all. The protein and fat are the main source of energy and the vegetables are there because I love them. The ones I eat, though, are the types that have small impacts on my glucose levels. If I eat 2 cups of steamed broccoli it would have a pretty noticeable impact on my blood sugars just by quantity in my stomach. If I keep it at ½- 1 cup, it’s fine.
What do you think about the paleo or primal diet?
The Paleo/Primal diets have resonated with me because they are fantastic for diabetics. My sister is also a Type 1 diabetic and she and her family eat Paleo and it has solved many health issues for all of them. I have read the Paleo and Primal literature and think it’s a great thing for people to pursue for better health. I’m already living gluten-free because I don’t consume any grains. I still use cream in my coffee, but that’s the only dairy I typically use regularly. I don’t have any issues with dairy, so I’m not interested in eliminating it. I used to brew beer at home regularly, and that was one place where I was consuming gluten. I found out, almost by accident, that my body responds better to cider than beer. So, I’ve been making my own hard cider at home and haven’t brewed beer in several months.
Does your family eat like you?
My way of eating has impacted the family to some degree. We have less junk food around the house and our typical family meals are centered around protein. My son and my youngest daughter are starting to naturally eat the way that I do. It just appeals to them, and they are thriving. We still have potatoes or tortillas on the table with some meals, but they are not the focus of the meal. I think we have all become healthier since I started pursuing my health goals. People keep asking my wife what she’s doing to get so slim.
Where would Carmen San Diego be if she had diabetes?
I don’t know her very well, but, I think she’d be at her local farmer’s market geeking out on all the fabulous produce.
What’s the hardest thing about eating low carb?
I’m a pretty easy-going person, so I don’t like anyone to feel obligated to do anything special for me. I try not to put any special attention on what I do or don’t eat, but sometimes you realize that there’s not much in a meal that you can go after… like a spaghetti dinner with garlic bread. I can’t even just eat a polite portion of that. It’s not that I wouldn’t love that stuff… I guess trying to balance between “not being a pain in the neck” with taking the impact of daily food seriously.
You seem to be really optimistic about life with type 1 diabetes. Why is that and have you always been this way?
I’ve always been pretty upbeat about diabetes, despite the seriousness of the disease. My dad is a Type 1 diabetic and he always has had a good attitude about. He lives a rather normal life and views his glucose control as a puzzle to sort out, rather than a drag. You’ll often find him going for an 30 minute walk to get glucose levels back to normal. I find that curiosity about it keeps me motivated to know as much as I can and master it. Instead of accepting the idea that it’s going to derail my life and control it, I plan to be in control. Attitude has a lot to do with that, and I plan to win.
I really appreciate hearing how someone fits this way of eating into their life and the reasons behind doing so. I think the reasons for finding foods that lower insulin needs are compelling enough to consider very seriously. Thanks so much for answering those questions, Nathan!
Remember to check out his blog: Edibles…(the diabetic edition)