2012-04-30

Two Conversations About Diet

I have previously discussed how non-diabetics experience all the same feelings that we diabetics do, only to a lesser degree. That thirst, those headaches, that restlessness, that dizziness... it's all there in a non-diabetic, just as it is in a diabetic.

For this reason, I have concluded that whatever is healthy for a diabetic is also healthy for a non-diabetic. Or, to put it another way, just because you're not a diabetic doesn't mean you shouldn't be eating like one. Non-diabetics, i.e. "normal people," can get away with a lot more than diabetics can, because you normal folks have fully functional endocrine systems. Lucky you. You have the luxury of a wider margin of error.

But the "target" diet, the one that does your body the most good, is the same for you as it is for me. Often, when I say this, people start to get a little uncomfortable. But more and more research is showing that carbohydrates with lower values on the glycemic index, more vegetables, and sane amounts of meats and animal proteins are what makes for the best human diet.

Recently, I had two separate conversations about diet. Although the topic of each conversation was a little different, they both highlighted what I consider to be an extremely silly concept: Food "choices."

I'll explain what I mean, below.

Conversation One: Meat
In a recent conversation I had about recipes, a friend of mine recoiled at the notion of eating lamb. Eating lamb, she maintained, was cruel. In response to this, another friend of mine - a vegetarian - remarked that if eating lamb was cruel, why not other animals, too? In other words, eating any animal is cruel.

My contribution to this (which was really a conversational tangent from the initial discussion about recipes) was that, as a diabetic, I don't spend much time considering the ethics of eating meat. For me, what's important is staying alive. I said, "I'll eat anything that doesn't raise my blood sugar." Meat doesn't raise my blood sugar. Whether that meat is a cute little baby sheep or a big, ugly eel hardly matters to me. Vegetarianism - while technically possible - is wholly unpractical for type 1 diabetics.

The reason for this is simple: Complex carbohydrates and simple sugars both cause blood glucose "spikes" and send me into unhealthy hyperglycemia. The carbohydrates and fats present in meat are comparatively sparse and harder for the body to digest, therefore they have only a very small impact on my blood sugar. All things considered, I cannot possibly eat enough vegetables alone to satisfy my daily caloric requirements. In order to do so, I need to consume meat. Period, end of story.

Now, I can either flog myself every night about the cruelty of my situation and how I must repeatedly murder many cute animals in order not to die, but why? Human beings are omnivores.

Furthermore, the "choice" not to eat meat is a luxury that we diabetics simply do not have. It is a hefty sense of righteousness that drives a person to ethics-vegetarianism. Were I to adopt that kind of righteousness, I would quickly starve to death or die from poorly maintained blood sugar.

So, from the diabetic perspective, such a "food choice" is a laughable luxury to be enjoyed by those who fancy themselves healthy enough to compromise an efficient diet for the sake of beasts. More power to those of you who want to do this, but... It's not really a "choice."

Conversation Two: Sweets, Snack Foods, and Food Piety
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I recently had a conversation about a friend-of-a-friend who insists that achieving a person's health-and-wellness goals comes down largely to "making the right choices." On the surface, that is definitely true, however taking this idea to the extreme presents some problems.

Before I start talking about the problems, however, I'd like to return to the idea of "food choices." Such concepts make absolutely no sense for a type 1 diabetic. Diabetics don't have "food choices" in the same sense that others perceive that they do.

What I mean is, every time we eat, we diabetics choose between being sick or not. That is obviously not much of a choice. Where a normal person might choose between whether or not to eat a piece of cake, type 1 diabetics simply choose whether or not we want to be sick. And the answer to that "choice" is no. No, we never want to be sick. We don't eat cake.

But, to reiterate, it is not a choice. We don't really choose to eat the cake or not to eat the cake. We simply know that doing so will hurt. A lot.

Now, consider the conversation I had recently. In this conversation, the friend-of-a-friend had been talking about how a person will never reach their true potential - that state of mental and physical health they "deserve" to achieve - if that person makes bad food "choices." Some examples of a bad food choice might be eating cake or candy, eating a second helping where one would suffice, choosing to take the day off from exercise, and so on.

Now, this person comes down really hard on herself when she "makes a bad choice," and you should be able to easily see why. If food and exercise "choices" are inseparably glued to a person's concept of self worth then any "bad choice" is going to result in self-criticism.

Folks, this way of looking at things is not just wrong, it is deeply wrong. You're not a bad person just because you eat a slice of cake. You're also not a bad person if you eat two slices of cake every day for twenty years. Doing so wouldn't exactly be smart from the standpoint of personal health, but it's no reason to go lambasting yourself for "failing to live up to your true potential."

The notion is patently absurd. Your true potential is whatever you feel like. Only you know what makes you happy. Some people eat too much cake, and suffer the consequences. They're not jerks, monsters, or morons. They're people who eat too much cake. Period.

The "advantage" of having diabetes in this case is that is completely obliterates the concept of "food choices." When you're diabetic, you cannot possibly feel like a sinner for eating cake because you're too busy feeling like you're going to throw up or pass out. Suddenly all that moralizing disappears. You no longer feel like eating cake is wrong because that sensation has been replaced with the sensation that eating cake just hurts.

"Choices," Diabetes, and Healthy Eating
And so it appears that people play a lot of "food choices" games with themselves. Some of us "choose" alternative diets that reaffirm our sense of morality. Others "choose" healthy diets that... reaffirm their sense of morality.

Of course, realistically speaking, there's nothing moral about food. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich. In fact. A sandhich is always just a sandwich. There's nothing more to it than that.

The benefit of having diabetes is that it purges you of these kinds of food-based moral concepts and replaces them all with a single understanding of food: eat what's healthy if you don't want to hurt. There's no room for crazy eating disorder behavior or caring-for-and-nurturing-our-friends-the-beasts when you're diabetic. We diabetics don't have this sort of luxury.

Instead, we diabetics face a situation in which we cannot really deviate much from what makes up a healthy diet. Too many carbs makes us hurt. Too little meat leaves us hungry. We have to shoot for the dietary bull's eye and stick to healthy amounts of all the macronutrients. The only foods we can safely eliminate from our diets are the ones that hurt us, anyway.

Anyone who sticks to eating like a diabetic will find themselves in a healthier situation than they were before. Our diets are tailor-made to optimize health. Any shortcoming will throw our endocrine systems into a state of imbalance.

So the next time you "choose" to eat food, maybe you should think like a diabetic. That is, get this silly concept of "food choices" out of your head and learn to see your diet as an array of things that are either good for you or not. If you eat something bad for you, forget about it. It's not a moral shortcoming, it's just a temporary pain.

Now go forth and eat well.