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5 Tips for Southern Food

Ways to make it diabetes-friendlier

To many people who grew up enjoying traditional cooking from the American South, a good home-cooked meal includes biscuits made with lard, chicken fried crispy, greens seasoned with ham hocks, sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese made with three types of cheese, all topped off by a cake that would melt in your mouth – thanks to a pound of butter in the batter! And many people, especially those who grew up eating these traditional Southern foods, don’t think a thing of eating all that carbohydrate and fat – except, “Mmm, this is goo-ood!”

But, in my opinion, living with diabetes doesn’t have to mean the end of satisfying eating or sacrificing deeply rooted culinary traditions. In fact, the principles of a healthy diet are the same for a person with diabetes as they are for just about everyone else. Read more about what a “diabetic diet” entails. I tell clients that if they eat wisely and well, they can still enjoy traditional Southern cooking, despite living with diabetes, even if they want to lose weight. You’ll be happy to know that many of your favorite Southern dishes can be transformed into healthier ones, with one caveat: always make sure to check calories and carbs to ensure they fit into your meal plan.

Just by tweaking recipes with “a little more of this and a little less of that,” you can enjoy down-home fare without disappointing your taste buds. Fear not – you can still make cabbage, collards, and turnip greens. My favorite? I’ve found even sweet potato casserole and corn bread can stay on my menu! These five tips may help you rediscover the food you love to eat and still live well with diabetes.

Bake the Roux

Southern roux is often used to thicken gravy, stews, or to make a big pot of Louisiana-style gumbo. Traditionally, roux is cooked on top of the stove with a mixture of equal parts bacon drippings or lard and flour. To make a healthier roux, use vegetable or canola oil, and brown the flour in a dish in the oven. Be sure to stir occasionally to prevent scorching. You’ll be surprised to find that baking roux retains that rich nutty flavor you’re accustomed to.

Skip the Fat

Crushed bacon, fat back, or ham hocks are typically used in collard greens or black-eyed peas as the fat and flavor carrier. My favorite “sneak” is to replace the fat with a low-sodium broth. Then, instead of ham hock, enhance the flavor with a small piece of smoked turkey. To give greens an extra kick with no added fat and very few calories, sprinkle a little cider vinegar on just before you eat them.

If you’re not ready to ditch fat totally, you can certainly reduce it. Most recipes call for amounts of added fat that are just not necessary – for taste or function. As a matter of fact, too much fat can interfere with the flavor of your food. Experiment with your favorite recipes by cutting fat a little each time you make the recipe. This will help you determine how much fat is really needed for the flavor you desire.

Substitute Sugar

Ah! Sweet potato casserole – the next best thing to grandma’s sweet potato pie! Because it is often loaded with sugar, this culinary delight may cause anyone’s blood sugar to spike. But just by replacing sugar with a brown sugar substitute, you’ll reduce the carb count by half. Read more about just what “sugar-free” actually means. When it comes to the spices typically used in sweet potato casserole – cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg – this is your opportunity to “add a little more of that.” These spices all work well in sweet foods without adding calories or fat, allowing you to enhance the flavor while possibly reducing sugar even more.

Finally, don’t forget nature’s sweeteners. Whenever possible, use fruit as the primary sweetening agent – you’ll get the sweetness of fruit, along with fiber and other beneficial nutrients. Just make sure to count the fruit against your daily meal plan.

Minimize Added Salt

It’s true that many foods taste bland and unappetizing without a bit of salt, especially if you’re accustomed to lots of sodium. Try adding just a small amount (perhaps a teaspoon) of salt early in the cooking process; this may enhance the flavor of food while enabling you to use less salt overall. Love the rich and spicy flavor of Creole seasoning? Reduce salt content by making your own: simply mix together one tablespoon each black pepper, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, and dried thyme; two tablespoons each salt and garlic powder; and two and a half tablespoons paprika. Put all the ingredients in a sealed jar, and it will be ready when you need it.

Watch Your Plate

When traditional favorites hold so much sentimental value that you just can’t bring yourself to change them, I’d generally advise you to go ahead enjoy them, while being mindful of your portions. Try to aim for filling half the plate with non-starchy vegetables like braised cabbage or collards, and a quarter of the plate for starches, such as black-eyed peas or macaroni and cheese. The other quarter is for protein – fish, poultry, or meat. Portion control, along with a habit of eating small, frequent meals will help control your carbohydrate intake and rev up your metabolism. Read more about portion control.

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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