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5 Tips for Caribbean Food

Ways to make it diabetes-friendlier

A few months ago, to my great pleasure, I participated in a diabetes mission on the beautiful Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Like so many people living with diabetes, some of the local people I spoke to (called “Vincentians”) felt that having diabetes meant the end of good eating. I was happy to clear up their confusion regarding meal planning with diabetes, and let them know they didn’t have to sacrifice their deeply rooted culinary traditions.

In fact, many culinary traditions and elements of Caribbean cuisine are quite healthful and, in my view, should be preserved. Local dishes may feature the vast array and abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, beans, peas, and fish, all of which may be part of a healthy meal plan (check with your diabetes care team to see how they might fit into yours). Foods like these are generally high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals – and, of course depending on how you cook them, low in fat. Yes, creating diabetes-friendly meals may require eating “a little less of this and more of that,” but you won’t have to give up on tradition.

Here are five of my favorite tips for making Caribbean food diabetes-friendlier.

Caution with saltfish

Saltfish can be any salted fish, but is most often cod. With the availability of fresh fish all over the Caribbean, some cooks are moving away from this preserved fish that dates back to the days before refrigeration. Still, many have a soft place in their hearts for saltfish, and it can be a staple of Caribbean food.

Just as the name implies, saltfish is loaded with salt! A 3-ounce piece of dried salted codfish has more than 6,000 grams of sodium – that’s right, six thousand grams! So proper soaking and draining is essential to remove as much salt as possible. The procedure is known as de-salting. (You can read more about salt and diabetes here.)

De-salting is simple, but it does take some time. The more cycles of soaking and draining, the more salt you remove – which is better for your health and taste buds too! Many cooks only de-salt for 24 hours. Chef and cookbook author Sara Moulton suggests you de-salt for two days – and I agree!

Choose healthy fat

Love the flavor of coconut milk in rice and peas? Coconut milk, coconut cream, and coconut oil are some of the ingredients that give Caribbean cuisine its distinctive flavor. However, along with the great taste comes extra calories and saturated fat. Just ½- cup of coconut milk has 276 calories and 25 grams of saturated fat. Opt for the lighter version of coconut milk and save 200 calories and 19 grams of saturated fat.  

Master the art of “jerking”

The art of “jerking” originated in the Caribbean but has gained popularity worldwide in recent years. Jerk is the process of spicing and grilling meats, poultry, and even vegetables. Grilling is one of the simplest and healthiest ways to prepare a meal. Grilling also maintains the natural tenderness and flavor of meats without sacrificing essential nutrients. (You can get more ideas for outdoor grilling here.)

Steer clear of commercial brands of jerk seasoning – salt is usually the first ingredient. That means there is more salt in the jerk than anything else.

Easy on the sweet drinks

Fruit drinks and teas sweetened with sugar or honey are popular throughout the Caribbean. “Mauby,” a drink made from the bark of the mauby tree, is a favorite among many Caribbeans. When drinking mauby or any tea, avoid adding sugar and use a calorie-free sweetener instead. Looking for an exciting low-carb thirst quencher? Try making this juicy “fling”: 3 oz. orange juice, 2 tbsp. grapefruit juice, 2 tbsp. unsweetened pineapple juice and 1 oz. raspberries. Combine all ingredients (except two of the raspberries) in a blender until smooth. Serve in a tall cocktail glass filled with ice. Garnish with the remaining raspberries. Voilà!

(Get more ideas here for diabetes-friendlier refreshing drinks.)

Accentuate the positive

Finally, ditch the all-or-nothing attitude. I say, learn to accentuate the positive. Overeating at one meal doesn’t translate into “diet failure.” Think about it: if you eat three meals every day, that’s twenty-one meals a week, right? So if you have a dietary “indiscretion” at one or two of those meals, that still translates into nineteen or twenty meals that were balanced and healthy. Now that’s a cause for celebration!

Bon appétit!

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE*, CDN – an award-winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Learn more about her work at and follow her @eatingsoulfully. Brown-Riggs is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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