By Kristina Wittlich-Triebow
I started getting interested in nutrition and healthy lifestyles three years ago, when our son Finn – now 14 – got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The diagnosis was a shock for all of us as there was no history of diabetes in our family. Neither we, nor our GP recognised the symptoms of type 1 diabetes until it was almost too late. Our son got thinner and more and more poorly until on our second visit to the GP they immediately called an ambulance and brought him to hospital.
There, he was treated with insulin and his extremely high ketone levels slowly came down. A nurse showed him, and us, how to use an insulin pen and how he has to prick his finger to check his blood levels several times a day. As his pancreas no longer produces any insulin this is a lifelong condition. If his blood sugar levels are constantly high, there would be high risks for future kidney failure, blindness and/or limb amputations. If his levels drop too low, there is a high risk of losing consciousness, brain damage and death. That day the nurse also explained to us what Finn could eat. In fact, she said that he could continue to eat the same food as long as we give him insulin. Little did we know how difficult it would be to maintain good blood sugar levels…almost impossible!
Back home we calculated the carbohydrates that we usually ate in a meal which amounted to a lot throughout the day. Porridge for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch then pasta or pizza for dinner. We had to give a huge amount of insulin at a time just to cover one meal. As carbohydrate indications on food packages can differ by +/- 20% we often gave him too little or too much insulin, resulting in very high or very low levels which needed to be corrected. We were in a constant panic trying to manage this roller coaster.
Then one day, about four months after Finn’s diagnosis, I got hold of a book called Diabetes Solution by Dr Richard Bernstein. This is a unique resource that covers both adult and childhood onset diabetes. It explains step-by-step how to normalise blood sugar levels and prevent or reverse complications. It also offers detailed guidelines for establishing a treatment plan. Dr Bernstein recommends a low carb, moderate protein diet and the primary concept he lives by is “The law of small numbers”. The key is to eat foods that will affect your blood sugar in a very small, slow way; small inputs, small mistakes.
After reading the book we were eager to try it out and change our diet to include no more than 30 grams of carbohydrates per day. Finn now has nut and seed porridge for breakfast, meat and cheese for lunch and meat or fish for dinner with lots of vegetables. As for sides, we now make caulimash, caulirice or courgette noodles. I occasionally bake cakes with nut flours and alcohol sugar that doesn’t affect blood sugar levels, and we even have pizza made out of cheese!
It only took a short time for our kids – aged 12, 14 and 17 – to get used to the new food but after a while they no longer missed the carb loaded dishes. They keep telling me they prefer my low carb cooking as it has so much more flavour and the whole family instantly felt big health improvements. My husband and I lost weight, we were no longer tired or lethargic in the afternoons and no longer felt the need to snack constantly.
But, the biggest change of all was managing Finn’s diabetes. Gone are the unpredictable drops and unavoidable highs after eating. We are now a lot less anxious at night that Finn’s levels could drop so low that he would not wake up in the morning. He has also grown a lot during the last 2 years since changing the way he eats, and he is now a healthy teenager with lots of energy. And the cherry on top? Finn is now a non-diabetic Hba1c 5.4% / 36mmol!
Finn measuring his blood glucose levels
Click here to download the Real Food Day family activity pack and feel free to watch Dr Ian Lake’s presentation on type 1 diabetes at the Public Health Collaboration Conference in 2018 at the Royal College of General Practitioners.