As 2019 begins, why not make one of your New Year’s resolutions to diversify your palate and bring new flavors into your daily diet? If you need inspiration, try the Latino flavors of Le Cordon Bleu-trained and Certified Nutritionist Laura Diaz, better known as Chef LaLa.
In her large Mexican family of food lovers and restaurant owners, diabetes has affected more than a dozen relatives. Her grandparents and father passed away from diabetes complications, and her mother lives with the condition in Los Angeles. Chef LaLa’s family became her inspiration for studying the health benefits and intricacies of global cuisine and how to bring it into people’s everyday lives.
“After speaking with my dad about his diabetes and hearing how passionate he was about not giving up the flavors he loved, I saw that there was a need to find the balance between delicious and healthy,” recalls Chef LaLa. “He taught me that you don’t have to leave behind your culture and favorite ingredients when trying to eat healthy diabetes meals.”
Inspired by her dad, Chef LaLa wrote the best-selling book Best Loved Mexican Cooking and has appeared on several TV shows like Dr. Oz and the Today Show. Chef LaLa recently spoke with Diabetes Self-Management to help people realize that they do not have to give up their culture and the flavors they love to eat well and manage their diabetes.
DSM: When did your passion for bringing healthier Latino and other ethnic foods to the diabetes community begin?
Chef LaLa: I was participating in a charity event at a church. There were many questions on diabetes management, and I realized even though I had studied medicine, I didn’t have all the answers for them. The audience was mainly Hispanic, and I thought, how can I live in Latino LA and be a chef without having the knowledge on the medical and dietary needs of the diabetes community?
DSM: As a nutritionist and chef, what cooking methods do you believe people with diabetes should incorporate into their cooking?
Chef LaLa: One of the biggest challenges that most people have with eating healthy in general is the time it takes to prepare foods high in nutrition and low in excess calories and fats. Fats do not need to be totally removed from a diet as they are necessary for our bodies to process certain vitamins, but the key is moderation. An important way to avoid excess fats and calories is to reach back to the traditional ways of preparing foods like grilling, steaming, boiling and baking. I like using citrus to tenderize meats and then grilling them as it gives the meat great flavor without adding oils or salt to the cooking process.
DSM: Which Latino dishes pack the biggest nutritional punch while helping to maintain optimal blood sugar levels?
Chef LaLa: I’m a busy mom and a business owner, so I need quick, simple foods that are readily available for those days I can’t spend more time preparing food for my family. I like making guisado, which is a delicious, slow cooking stew of meat and vegetables that can be eaten alone or with brown rice or whole wheat tortillas. Soups made up of vegetables and meat are also a go-to for my family. When I have these foods ready, I find that it’s easier for us to resist the temptation of more caloric and processed foods.
DSM: Are there any special ingredients needed to prepare Latino dishes?
Chef LaLa: Many of the ingredients used in Latino dishes are commonly used in many other cuisines like garlic, onion, cilantro, chilis, basil, beans, avocado and some cheeses. I always have on hand a good olive oil as well as grapeseed oil for high heat cooking. My secret ingredient is homemade chicken stock that I make ahead and freeze in ice cube trays. It is an easy way to add flavor without extra fat and calories to my dishes.
DSM: If you enjoy cooking, but don’t know where to begin with creating healthy, satisfying Latino dishes, where would you recommend someone begin?
Chef LaLa: I would recommend, as with any cuisine, to stay away from processed foods. If you are living with diabetes, reading labels is incredibly important. Labels that advertise as fat-free may initially sound good, but they tend to have more sugar in them. Having a balance between carbohydrates, fat and protein is critical, and everyone’s dietary needs are different. So when you are looking to cook a new dish, make sure it fits your individual dietary needs and contains flavors that speak to you. Looking online or in a cookbook for recipes that you feel your family would enjoy is a great place to begin.
DSM: What is your number one tip for a chef looking to create healthier ethnic cuisine?
Chef LaLa: Recipes are really footprints for the chef to then interpret in a way that is mindful of their audience’s culture, flavor profile and favorite tastes. Try something new, play around with it, and make it into something your family will enjoy.