September 28, 2022
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Photography by Pixel Stories/Stocksy United
Welcome to Connecting the Dots on Diabetes, a series by Sydney Williams of Hiking My Feelings, chronicling the organization’s mission to hike 1 million miles for diabetes awareness.
Throughout the series, Sydney, who received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in 2017, will dig into questions like: Is there a relationship between trauma and diabetes? If so, if we treat the trauma, can we more effectively treat diabetes? And how can self-reflection help make sense of a diabetes diagnosis and lead to better outcomes?
In the days and weeks following my type 2 diabetes diagnosis, my fingers became pin cushions. I turned my nutrition plan into a science experiment by trying new foods to see if they contributed positively to maintaining healthy blood glucose levels.
Without access to a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), if I wanted to truly understand how the food I ate impacted my blood glucose levels, I had to take matters into my own hands. What I didn’t realize was how quickly I would plow through test strips, how unwilling the pharmacy would be to refill my test strips early, and how sore my fingers would get.
When I returned to my primary care doctor for my follow-up appointment, I could’ve become discouraged when she told me I didn’t need to prick my fingers that many times per day, but I wasn’t.
Why? Because diabetes turned me into my own best advocate.
In the absence of a CGM where this kind of data is accessible in real-time, and with a desire to use food as medicine to heal my body from the inside out, I did what I had to do to get a better understanding of what was happening in my body. I wrote out my target ranges for fasting (2 hours after eating and before bed), put them where I would see them the most, and I got to work.
While I was documenting how the foods I was choosing impacted my blood glucose levels, I was also learning about mindful eating.
Historically, I’ve turned to food as a coping mechanism in times of stress, sadness, and celebration. When I realized that I had been “eating my feelings” instead of facing them, and when I committed to making managing diabetes my top priority, I had to face the music.
I couldn’t continue to eat a pint of ice cream for breakfast or drink a whole bottle of wine after work if I wanted to manage diabetes successfully. This understanding launched me into a practice of self-reflection around the traumatic experiences I had encountered over the course of my life so far. It also gave me an opportunity to be more discerning in my food choices.
I shifted my mindset to “this food is medicine” and started to ask myself, “What medicine works well for me?”
As I developed healthy coping mechanisms, I didn’t feel good or bad about how I ate. Instead, I was simply nourishing my body. I shifted my mindset to “this food is medicine,” and started asking myself, “What medicine works well for me?”
As part of my mindfulness practice around eating, I considered the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, packaging, distributing, selling, and preparing the food we eat. I gave thanks to every person (and animal) along the way that contributed to making this food available to me, and I took the time to savor each bite.
I stopped labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and evaluated their place in my nutrition plan based on how the food made me feel when eating it, after eating it, and how it impacted my blood glucose levels. The foods that contributed positively to my diabetes management plan stayed, and the ones that contributed to out-of-target-range readings were placed on the reserve list.
While it can be tempting to eliminate certain foods or entire food groups from our nutrition plans, we are all human beings living on planet Earth where the food happens to be really, really delicious. I don’t believe anything is truly off-limits for me, but it took me years to get to the place where I could trust myself to eat what I wanted without judgment or fear of consequences.
The world we live in today is riddled with problematic language and attitudes around how we nourish ourselves. The word “diet” in and of itself has a negative, restrictive connotation to it.
Here are some journal prompts that inspired some major mindset shifts for me regarding nutrition, food intake, and how it all comes together for diabetes management.
The intention of this prompt is not to assign blame, but rather to check in with ourselves and understand just how many outside factors can influence how we feel about how we nourish ourselves. Just asking the question of where these beliefs came from is enough to ease into a self-reflection practice around this.
We also live on a planet with tons of cultural significance and traditions surrounding the dishes we prepare and enjoy. If you come from a culture that has been criticized for its signature dishes, I strongly recommend connecting with organizations like Eat Well Exchange, which is led by registered dietitians teaching nutrition, gardening, and cooking for different cultures.
Whether you’ve internalized “bad” vs. “good” foods from previous diets, professionals, your friends, family, or the media we consume, it doesn’t matter as much as the question: Can I let go of these labels?
When you start to take ownership of your food choices and let go of the labels, the next question can become a guiding light moving forward.
As you start making different nutritional choices, it’s important to note how eating the food itself makes you feel, and how you feel after you eat it.
Part of eating mindfully and developing a self-reflection practice around how you nourish your body is tapping into all the senses and the experience of preparing, eating, and digesting food. What textures and texture combinations do you love? What flavor profiles make you excited about eating?
When we get clear on how we want to feel throughout the day, we have a guidepost that helps us align our nutritional choices to what works for us. And let’s be honest, not many of us aspire to feel sluggish or uncomfortable in our bodies — we want to feel good!
When you give yourself the opportunity to claim how you want to feel and commit to creating the conditions that help you feel that way, navigating food choices can become a lot easier.
For example, I want to feel healthy, energized, and strong throughout the day. Based on my reflections from the prompt above, I know which foods make me feel this way, and I can prioritize eating those foods.
As an added bonus, when we’re mindful about how we want to feel throughout the day and eat foods that contribute to those feelings, we’re building up our self-trust that we know how to take care of ourselves. And that is a beautiful feeling!
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