My Nutrition Journey – From Low-Fat to Keto to Balanced
By, Christel Oerum
I believe that there are many ways of living a healthy life with diabetes – especially when it comes to what diet you follow. There is no “diabetic diet” that you have to follow to successfully manage your diabetes.
I base this belief on my own experiments with different lifestyles and ways of feeding my body, as well as knowing so many people living their best lives with diabetes in so many different ways.
We are all different – physically and emotionally – and I’ve found that a lot of the common nutrition approaches that work brilliantly for others are awful for my body and mental health.
My fitness journey kickstarted my nutrition journey
My nutrition journey started with a bit of a fitness obsession…
Back in 2014, I entered my first bodybuilding competition and the preparation for that competition opened my eyes to much more regimented ways of eating that I was used to.
Up until 2014, I ate a fairly healthy “normal” diet. I didn’t count carbs, fats, or protein but ate when hungry and dosed my insulin based on my best guestimation.
I competed at bodybuilding from 2014 through 2016 and had a lot of fun with it. My diet at that point was high in protein, low in fat, medium in starchy carbohydrates, and very high in vegetables. I was reaching my fitness goals and my blood sugars were stellar (probably because I was weighing every morsel going into my mouth and counting my carbs, which made insulin dosing less of a shot in the dark).
But although I managed to build some beautiful muscles, lean out when needed for my competitions, and for the first time landed at an A1C below 6%, all was not well.
The high amount of vegetables was not working for my body as it turns out I have a pretty severe FODMAP intolerance. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols. They are carbohydrates (sugars) found in some foods, and especially in vegetables.
The issue for people intolerant to FODMAPs is that these sugars can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine and start fermenting with bacteria creating gas (here comes the bloat). They can also give other symptoms like constipation or diarrhea. Some people experience symptoms after eating even small amounts.
And although my body looked strong, my mind was a mess. Being so restrictive with my food made me highly obsessive and ultimately lead to a very unhealthy relationship with food.
I left the bodybuilding competition world behind because the way I was eating wasn’t working for me – mentally or physically.
Keto to the rescue (or so I thought)
Even though I no longer trained for competitions, I was still fascinated by different nutrition approaches and so conditioned to following “a diet” that just going back to eating “normally” seemed unrealistic.
I’d heard a lot of good things about the keto diet from people in the diabetes community and even from mainstream media. It sounded almost too good to be true (!). What lured me was the promise of not having to count calories, beautiful flat blood sugar lines, easy weight management, and lots of cheese!
The guideline for the keto diet is to restrict carbohydrates and protein, which means that you primarily rely on fats for your daily energy. The goal is to consume very few carbohydrates (~5% of your daily calorie consumption, or 20-50 grams max), thereby forcing your body to burn fat for fuel. So, after doing some research, I decided to not count calories (just eat mindfully until I felt full), eat 20-50 grams of carbs daily (some of that being fiber), and keep my protein intake moderate.
At first, that approach went well. I was not eating a lot of vegetables so my FODMAP intolerance wasn’t bothering me as much, I wasn’t extraordinarily hungry, I was eating yummy food (did you know you can make crisps out of cheese?), and my blood sugars were fairly stable. Until they weren’t anymore.
After the first 2 weeks, my daily insulin needs started to creep upward, and as I became more and more insulin resistant. I found it increasingly difficult to manage my blood sugars and needed more and more insulin to keep my blood sugars in range.
My digestive system also got messed up and my body fat percentage rapidly increased. I didn’t notice any brain fog, headaches, or feeling weak, which is sometimes mentioned as a drawback to eating keto. I did however start to have serious dreams of donuts, bread, and any other carb I could think of. Just as when I followed my bodybuilding diet the restrictive nature of keto was messing with my head.
I pulled the plug on the keto diet after about a month. At that point, I had gained a lot of weight, I was constantly bloated, and neither my endo nor I were happy with how insulin resistant I’d become.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that my body reacted as it did:
- I gained weight because I was eating more calories than I needed (yes, you will gain weight even on (INSERT WHATEVER DIET YOU’VE HEARD WILL MAKE YOU LOSE WEIGHT) if you eat more calories than you need)
- A diet low in fiber and volume can lead to digestive issues
- A diet high in fat can make you more insulin resistant
How I eat now and my words of advice
Coming of out my keto diet, I experimented with a few more nutrition approaches before finally making the mental decision to stop these experiments and go back to eating a more balanced diet as I did pre-2014.
Most days I try to include moderate amounts of vegetables (those I know my body reacts well to), complex carbs, protein, and fats. Then I have days where I include less nutritious options such as sweets or fatty food. Those days with sweets/fatty food can be a little harder for me to manage from a blood sugar perspective, but I’ve found that it’s doable, if I pay attention to the carb content and take into consideration that fats delay the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
This approach simply works better for me physically and mentally. I don’t feel deprived and there are no “rules” for what I can and cannot eat.
I don’t eat the same thing every day, but I start most mornings with a smaller breakfast consisting of a carbohydrate and protein. That could be Greek yogurt and fruit or Ezekiel toast with a slice of cheese. I’ve learned that my body responds best to carbs in the morning. If I do intermittent fasting (go prolonged amounts of time without eating) or even skip the carbs in the morning, my blood sugars will quickly shoot up and I’ll be somewhat insulin resistant for hours.
Lunch is typically some sort of salad with chicken, and dinner varies greatly, but I always build my dinner around protein (like a piece of fish, beef, or poultry). I also like to snack between meals and come to think of it I often keep the snacks fairly low-carb. That has not been a conscious decision but what I have gravitated towards. I often enjoy something home-baked like a low carb lemon bar or a Questbar (that’s a protein bar).
Despite being less-restricted with my diet, I still keep a relatively low A1c since I’m still very strict about measuring my food, but for the purpose of carb counting only.
What this journey has taught me is that:
- What works for one person may or may not work for everyone else. And that’s OK, we don’t all have to live the same way
- It’s great to try new nutrition approaches and it’s absolutely OK to dump them just as fast if they don’t work for you
- A very low A1C is not worth a messed-up relationship with food – look for a middle ground, you can find your way