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Finding Joy in Hidden Vegetables

How Kathryn Sheehan retrained her tastebuds

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

As I talk with people who live with diabetes, I often hear about changes they made following their diagnoses. Gretchen Becker described to me some changes she made to her diet. Sarah Boison shared how she added working out with weights in her basement. Others have discovered new hobbies, such as Susan Ito’s introduction to running. Kathryn Sheehan has also found new joys, and I’m pleased to share her story with you today.

Kathryn Sheehan
Kathryn Sheehan

In 1998, Kathryn was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes during a routine physical exam. “I took the diagnosis seriously from day one,” she recalled. “It was just before the holidays and there was a lot of sadness that year as I felt like I had to give up certain holiday traditions surrounding food. I felt left out of the holiday celebration when I couldn’t partake of some foods, like my favorite desserts. I was overweight and not in the best shape. I knew a lot of change was necessary to regain my health, but I didn’t know where to begin. It was a scary and confusing time in my life.”

Kathryn first addressed her diet. “I began keeping a food log and counting exchanges,then changed to carb counting,” she said. “At first, I tried to make dietary changes alone with only the advice from my doctor. That didn’t go very well. After a few years of worsening health, I took a class at a diabetes center in my community, and then I consulted with a medical nutritionist. Her specific recommendations about diet really turned things around for me.”

One of the biggest challenges Kathryn faced involved vegetables. “I had a strong dislike for vegetables,” she said. “I ate mainly a diet of unhealthy carbs, with very little protein or fat. The things the nutritionist suggested were difficult to implement, like eating a lot more vegetables, but when I made those changes, it was the first positive step. I had to retrain my tastebuds to love vegetables and I have!”

Trial and error has helped reveal a diet that works for Kathryn. “I have learned that my tolerance for carbs is very low,” she said. “My body just can’t metabolize them well. Through self-education, I have learned that there is not one single diet that works for every diabetic. For me, it turns out that a gluten-free, egg-free, high fat, very low carb diet of mainly non-starchy vegetables works best. This knowledge and the subsequent alteration to my diet has made a big difference in my level of health. Now my weight is the same as the first year of my marriage. It’s fun to go shopping because everything fits! And I have tons of energy and enjoy exercise again.”

After years of experimenting with her diet, Kathryn has come to love cooking diabetes-friendly dishes, calling herself, “The Diabetic Cook of Maine.” “I love the adventure of cooking,” she said. “The consistent goal has been to include more vegetables into my recipes. I include vegetables in the most unlikely places, like grated zucchini in vanilla cupcakes or substituting vegetable noodles, which I make using a rotary slicer, into my pasta dishes. I’m a big promoter of green smoothies and haven’t eaten what I consider a traditional breakfast in years. I can hide a lot of greens in a fruit or chocolate-based smoothie. It’s a great way to get more vegetables into my diet. I hide them in everything!”

Several years ago, Kathryn’s mother and sister were also diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and Kathryn started a diabetes blog to keep in touch. “We live across the country from each other, and my blog was a way I could share my tips and recipes with them,” she said. “The response from the general public has been tremendous! I receive emails from people all over the world who are struggling with this complicated disease. Many are newly diagnosed and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. The inspiration for my recipes comes from many sources, but mainly I blog about the food that I’m cooking for my family.”

Helping others is motivating for Kathryn. “I currently facilitate two small groups a week and encourage other people dealing with chronic health issues, including diabetes and others,” she said. “The groups I facilitate are full of wonderful people who are so excited to learn! We exchange recipes and bring healthy snacks to share at our meetings. We have healthy potluck dinners every month. We’ve each chosen a buddy in the group and are in contact with them every week. Encouraging and boosting up another person helps us focus outward, instead of wallowing in self-pity, and makes us accountable to another person who is dealing with the same issues. We’re making it fun!”

Kathryn’s healthy eating habits have rubbed off on her family as well. “My only child has watched this transformation since she was nine and, by example, she has developed excellent eating habits,” she said. “My husband has always been supportive and eaten the healthy food I cook, even some of the disasters, with a smile, but it wasn’t until very recently that he developed some health issues which have prompted him to adopt a much healthier lifestyle, even when I’m not watching. I may consider that my greatest accomplishment to date!”

Even years later, Kathryn still keeps a food log. “Keeping a food and health journal has always been my greatest tool,” she said. “Throughout my many years of experience with diabetes management, when I stop writing it down, my blood sugar level begins to rise. With the invention of smart phones and tablets, there are some excellent apps available to help someone keep track of their daily food intake, plus the nutritional information, such as total calories, fat, carbs and protein. I use the CalorieKing® app and love it.”

Like Ginger Vieira and Denise Elliott, Kathryn suggests making changes in steps. “My best advice is to take things in manageable steps, even baby steps if that’s what gets you started,” she said. “The hardest part of living a healthier lifestyle may be your first step. If you can find a buddy to take the journey with you, that’s even better! Keep a health journal and document the changes; not just your weight and waist circumference, but also how you feel and what you’re thinking. I believe that you will see changes in the things that you document. Don’t stop writing about your journey; it will make a good story someday.”

My conversation with Kathryn has me thinking about ways to add more veggies to my family’s menu – do you think they would notice if I slipped some zucchini or maybe some kale into my next batch of cupcakes? What’s your favorite way to get your produce quota? I’d love to hear in the comment section below. Many thanks to Kathryn for sharing her inspiring journey and ideas.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosures: Kathryn Sheehan received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

CalorieKing is a registered service mark of Family Health Network Pty Ltd.

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