How a diabetes diagnosis can change your connection with food.

Our relationship with food is intricate and complicated at the best of times. But then throw in the added difficulty of an autoimmune condition, such as type 1 diabetes and the perplexity can increase even further.

I love all things food and cooking, so subsequently food has always played a big part in our family life. We all enjoy planning, making and especially eating great food. It’s always been a big focus of all our celebrations and for us, there is nothing better than being able to share food with our family and friends. 

My daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last year and this had a profound impact on my relationship with food. Like a bolt out of the blue, this thing comes into your life. You didn’t ask for it, you don’t know why and no one can explain why. You can’t get rid of it; you just have to learn to live with it. You can’t stop thinking about it; it takes up a huge amount of your day. You wonder how your child will lead a ‘normal’ life. You wonder if your family life will ever be the same again. You worry all the time. 

Part of this worry for me manifested in food. As the primary cook and carer for the family, I felt a huge responsibility in the fact that my food choices could have an extreme impact on her overall health. I just didn’t know how I could continue this positive relationship we had with food for the whole family and still protect and manage my daughters’ specific needs.  Yet another thing to add to the parental wheel of guilt!

Family celebrations

As with most hurdles I face I decided to hit the books to learn more. My investigations certainly led me down a few alternative paths trying to figure out for myself the foods I believed we should or shouldn’t be eating to manage things as best we can. This took me down the low carb, keto, no sugar route for a time, we avoided eating out (covid may have influenced this one!), we wouldn’t have takeaways, I tended to avoid giving fruit as a snack or for dessert and the list goes on. 

Initially, that positive outlook and associations I had with food became scary and I think I panicked. I felt that I needed to change everything, which included limiting or taking away certain foods we enjoyed as a family. I felt quite confused and lost for a time. I struggled to believe the information we were given by the fabulous paediatric diabetes team and genuinely thought restriction and avoidance was the right path to follow. 

Now I am not inferring that for anyone that has chosen the path of restriction to help with their overall diabetes management is wrong. In fact, I have learnt a lot of positives from these specific diets which I continue to include today. What I am highlighting however is that my restrictive choices for my family were coming from a place of fear. This condition has such a huge impact and along with all the other adjustments that need to be made in family life I think the key takeaway I learnt was that I had to lean into that fear. It became important for me to give myself enough time to process the enormity of this condition, alongside learning and investigating lots of different options when it comes to the food we choose. 

For a person with type 1 diabetes, it is this understanding of the impact of foods on blood glucose levels and how to manage this against your insulin delivery method that actually can be one of the biggest challenges. It is all such a massive learning curve and takes time to get to grips with. Unfortunately, it seems to be a method of trial and error and even when you think you’ve nailed it something shifts and your back to the crazy highs you just can’t bring down for hours or feeding jelly beans 30 minutes after you’ve finished a meal.

I wish I could say that I have it all figured out, but I don’t. For me, I eventually came full circle and to the conclusion that whilst my daughter has already adapted and compromised on so much in her life from her diagnosis, food should not be one of them. However, what I have learnt which has helped hugely with overall management is that:

Balance is key; which also includes enjoying the not so healthy stuff sometimes. 

Compromise; understanding that by sometimes making different choices means that we won’t have the subsequent hours afterwards trying to manage roller coaster blood sugar levels. 

Be flexible; sometimes you just have to roll with it

The world of alternatives can be a great option. For example, the majority of our baking is now refined sugar-free and gluten-free.

But most importantly of all, it has bought us back to appreciating all things food again!

Whilst I advocate for balance and variety, I do also fully appreciate this option isn’t for everyone. I also respect that for some, exclusion of foods or adopting a specific diet can have great health benefits, how it makes a person feel and can manage on a day-to-day basis. As I said earlier it comes down to personal choice.

This year has drastically changed how I think about food but it hasn’t taken away the many positive associations I feel towards it. I still love food; I enjoy experimenting with new and alternative ingredients and it has taken me down an amazing path in my professional life. I now firmly believe in balance, variety and that no food is off-limits, well only if you don’t like it of course. But more importantly, if you are a person with diabetes, I believe that these principles can apply to you too.  By making some tweaks to our family’s diet has helped not only educate both my daughters about the food we eat but has given us back more freedom. It has taken away the need to say no and returned us to have a happy relationship with the foods we choose.

Us showing support for world diabetes day and celebrating Olivia’s 13th birthday

Michelle Rorke
Hi, I’m Michelle, a mum to a daughter with type 1 diabetes and creator of Whole Hearty Kitchen, a space that celebrates all things diabetes and food. At WHK, I share simple recipes, tips and swaps, alongside my blog which talks about some of the bits I have learnt along the way. My aim is that it helps to make it simpler to make great home-cooked food as we all as take some of the fear, uncertainty and confusion away from food and cooking. If you want to follow me, I’m on Instagram or Facebook at @wholeheartykitchen or www.wholeheatrykitchen.co.uk

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