Diabetes and Diet

Summer is here in the South, and that means white-hot days where the temperature reaches 95 degrees and the humidity is thick at 6 AM when I walk outside to get the newspaper from my front lawn. Keeping my children entertained (and away from the computer) is an ongoing effort, and we spend a lot of our time at the pool. On the way home from the pool the other day, the boys and I stopped at a snow cone café that had recently opened. I tested my blood sugar before we left the pool and groaned out loud in frustration with the result. My blood sugar had been running low all afternoon, and the sweet taste of glucose tabs was making me sick. I sighed, reached into my bag and swallowed three more glucose tabs before I started driving.

“Mom, does that mean you can have a snow cone?” my six-year-old asked from the back seat as we pulled into the parking lot at Pelican’s SnoBalls.


“I could have a snow cone if my blood sugar was low, but I’m all better now,” I said. “And snow cones are really a treat for kids anyway.”

I watched my boys enjoy their frozen treats and it occurred to me that I’ve been saying no to certain foods for most of my life. I’ve never been overweight, but I’ve been on a diabetes diet since I was 14 years old. It began in high school with saying no to Cherry Coke and pizza, and now I say no to hamburger buns and I eat my burger on a bed of lettuce. I say no to chocolate cake and eat a small piece of dark chocolate. I say no to chips and salsa at the baseball game with my kids and no to the frozen cocktail at the pool with my friends. By now I’m used to following a restricted diet, but there are days when I wish I could just say yes.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the nutritionist when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She said “free foods” (things I could eat when I was hungry without having to give myself an injection) included pickles, nuts, and tea. I remember feeling panicked because I was used to eating when I was hungry, not according to a schedule, and the idea of feeling hungry and not being able to respond to that physical signal was scary. Besides, at 14 years old I hated nuts and tea and pickles. Looking back now, 31 years later, I think it’s no wonder that so many women with diabetes struggle with disordered eating.

Eating disorders are nearly twice as common in young women with Type 1 diabetes as their peers without diabetes. I researched this topic and spoke with experts for my book, A Smart Woman’s Guide to Diabetes: Authentic Advice on Everything from Eating to Dating and Motherhood. Dr. Ann Goebel-Fabbri, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who was with Joslin Diabetes Center for 16 years, is an expert in the field of diabetes and eating disorders and says, “So much attention to food is required and taught by diabetes educators, they’re trying to come up with a more flexible way of teaching this and a less morally judgmental way of teaching this, but it still gets misconstrued, and it’s not ever going to be a normal relationship with food because there’s all these calculations that have to be done. With old-style diabetes management, before the days of ‘designer insulins,’ you had to eat at certain times of day whether you were hungry or not. Patients unlearned their body’s usual response to hunger, and had to eat according to requirements.”

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about the physical and emotional components of eating as a woman with diabetes. I hope you’ll share your personal experiences with the “diabetes diet” on this site, because I think sharing stories is informative, inspirational, and healing.

  • Daniela Heinemann

    I really liked your story. I’m 31 now, and I was diagnosed with Diabetes when I was 12 years old. It’s difficult to keep on saying “no” to so many things, but I think that what’s most complicated is to have to stick to a eating schedule.

    • Amy Stockwell Mercer

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and I agree with you 100%!