Diary of a Diabetic Chef: Retooled diet of healthy foods is delicious surprise

In last week's column, I dismissed the vegan diet suggested by my naturopath. In fact, I rejected any regimented diet in favor of a basic change in the way I look at food. But just what does that mean?

kengordon.JPGView full sizeKen Gordon, owner of Kenny and Zuke’s Deli, was diagnosed with diabetes early this year. He will keep a diary of his efforts to help improve his condition with diet and exercise.

In last week’s column, I dismissed the vegan diet suggested by my naturopath. In fact, I rejected any regimented diet in favor of a basic change in the way I look at food. But just what does that mean?

The way I used to look at food was, I suspect, like a lot of people in my condition: It was all there for the enjoyment. One of my favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, once described his view that if you happened upon something delicious, or potentially delicious, or with the slightest chance that it may be delicious, it is your right, nay, maybe even your obligation, to consume it. This might even occur on your way to dinner. No matter. Opportunity knocks.

I used to be able to do this with impunity, back in the day, when a double cheeseburger, fries and shake were magically negated by an extra game of half-court basketball. When that pasta carbonara with a half bottle of “red” and a tiramisu chaser went through me without leaving an ounce of cholesterol or a pound of fat. You know, when I was in my 20s and early 30s, with the metabolism of a racehorse.

But it’s been awhile since anyone said I looked pretty trim … for a chef.

Now, with my newfound friend and constant companion diabetes, I need to watch what I eat — a LOT! The thing with diabetes is that it’s quite often accompanied by its own companion, metabolic syndrome. This is a group of conditions encompassing many elements of the body’s decline: obesity, high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood sugar. Pick three or four and you’re there. Well, I’m there. And the treatment for all of these is pretty much the same — a healthy diet and exercise.

So how does this translate into what I’m eating? Keep in mind I’m not a dietician, a home economist or a doctor. I’m just feeling my way along, trying to compromise between still enjoying what I eat and living a life that will keep me healthy enough — long enough — to enjoy anything at all. And it’s a constantly evolving process as I become aware of what certain foods do for me, in both good and bad ways, leading to a re-evaluation of many of the assumptions I’ve always made about food. I suspect my diet will look very different a month or two from now than it did when this whole thing started. And eventually I hope to be able to add back into my regimen in more moderate doses some of the things I love that I’m now avoiding.

Bacon, I’ll be back!

First, what I can’t eat:

Sweet drinks: not so good (the sugar and empty calories).

Processed and refined carbs: white rice, white pasta, white (or any other color) cookies and cakes, white bread. They’re all white like sugar for a reason, because it’s what they turn into once they enter your body.

Potatoes: Oh my, they’re maybe what I miss the most. But in most of the forms that I treasure — french fried, baked and butter-smothered, scalloped, mashed and tot-ed — they’re not so hot for a healthy diet.

Butter: Oy! Bacon and sausages and anything else with a fat content you can actually see.

Not much left to live for, huh? Sure there is! The first dinner I cooked after I was diagnosed was Pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup. With a couple of customizations — I added more vegetables, stayed with some of the leaner cuts of beef and some beef tendon, and substituted buckwheat soba noodles for the more traditional white rice noodles — it was every bit as delicious, and fit perfectly into my new regimen.

I’ve since been cooking a lot of Asian dishes, but heavy on the veggies, lighter on the oil and salt, and with brown rice instead of white.

I even had a pastrami sandwich at Kenny and Zuke’s, but it was on whole grain bread with only three ounces of meat — trimmed of visible fat — with mustard instead of a slathering of Russian dressing. With vinegar-based slaw and an iced tea.

Snacks? You betcha! I’ve discovered that it’s really important not to let myself get too hungry. So in between meals and when the munchies grab me it’s tangerines and dark chocolate and almonds and pistachios and air-popped popcorn. Truly, I never thought I’d use the words “air-popped” and “popcorn” in the same sentence, let alone buy an air-popper. But tossed with a small spoonful of olive oil and some smoked sea salt … Yum. And frozen cherries are little sugarless sorbet bombs, low in calories and high in anti-oxidants.

My goal is a diet full of complex carbs (about 40 percent of total calories), lean proteins (about 40 percent) and good fats (20 percent). Within that framework I’m finding there’s a lot of delicious foods I can eat (and I’m down to 226.5 pounds after starting at 239). Even at restaurants.

What I’m also discovering has come as somewhat of a surprise: I’m enjoying what I’m eating! Not like I used to, but in a different way. Before, my palate was treated to a constant bombardment of delicious — and fattening — delights. Sensory overload, if you will.

Now, I look forward to the occasional indulgence and can savor the nuances of foods I formerly avoided. I believe my palate was somewhat deadened by too much pleasure, if that’s possible. Now, I’m really enjoying the new flavors I’m discovering and the combinations I’m creating. It’s eye-opening!

In coming columns I’ll share some recipes, newfound food friends and tricks of the trade.
Next: Paula Deen and fellow chefs

Any questions about Ken’s regimen or, well, anything? Email
him at kgnyport@aol.com