"Creating a Family Culture of Healthy Eating,
One Step at a Time"

Written by Laura Plunkett
Published in Diabetes Health
June 14th, 2007

Several years ago, my husband Brian and my son Danny were eating at the Food Court of a local mall. "Dad, when someone gets three wishes from the genie in the lamp, why don't they just wish for more wishes?" Danny asked. 

"Well, if you had three wishes, what would you wish for?"

"I don't know. I pretty much have everything I want."

"Well, the first thing I'd wish for is that you didn't have type 1 diabetes anymore." Danny looked down at the teriyaki chicken and veggies on his plate and brightened, "Diabetes isn't so bad. It hasn't changed things that much. Look, it's got us eating healthier food. Otherwise, I'd be eating French fries!"

This was the moment that my husband and I realized that the indoctrination of our ten-year-old son was complete. When diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of seven, Danny's entire list of acceptable foods was Annie's macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, French fries, Cheerios, juice, and dessert. Occasionally he would consider some fruit or a slice of cucumber. Now, here he was, surrounded by fast-food outlets, and all he wanted was teriyaki chicken with vegetables.

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Recently a friend who was eating dinner with our family commented, "You seem to have your own family culture." I knew what she meant. Danny, now thirteen, and his sixteen-year-old sister Jess are as committed to our whole foods complex-carbohydrate diet as we are. That night the kids actually thanked me for a meal of steak tips, green beans and spinach salad that five years earlier neither child would have touched.

Now they enjoy sprouted grain bread, every vegetable and a wide range of protein, and more importantly, know why they are eating it. As my friend left that evening, she asked me, "How did you get your kids to eat like that?"

The truth isn't pretty. It's taken years of concentrated effort, which started when we realized that the foods Danny preferred before his diagnosis were sending him on a blood sugar roller coaster ride. When you have a child with an autoimmune disorder, you want to provide him with the healthiest diet possible. I learned that complex-carbohydrates created smaller blood sugar swings than simple ones. The foods we were eating for their high nutritional value also gave him better blood sugar control.

This was the start of many tearful meals - sometimes my tears - as Danny, and occasionally his sister, rejected the healthier foods I offered. It became clear that I wasn't going to be able to force the kids to change. In order to convince my children that they might actually love healthy food, Brian and I had to resort to the following strategies.

1. Family meetings around the dinner table

One of the first changes was that we established family meetings. We didn't call them that. We just refused to let the kids be excused early from the dinner table. I would mention that the processing of white flour removed one hundred nutrients from the original whole wheat and that a few synthetic replacements were added to call it enriched.

Then I'd present the problem: "How do you think we could eat more whole wheat bread?" and wait . . . until invariably Jess or Dan would pipe up with, "Could we disguise it in French toast?" or "I'd try the kind of bread my teacher eats." These conversations gave the kids choices and made them an integral part of our team.

2. Clear reasons for making the changes

I didn't want to blame diabetes for our changes in diet. Yes, we were aiming for better blood sugar control, but it was clear to me we needed better overall health in our family. We had had many colds and instances of the flu each winter, and additional fruits and vegetables would give us more of the vitamins and minerals we needed. We were an active family, and protein, healthy fats, and whole grains would more fully nourish our bodies.

We all had high and low energy swings, and nutritionists said that complex-carbohydrates helped avoid mood swings and the crash that came after eating a bagel. These would be permanent changes, not only for Danny, but also for the overall health and well-being of every member of our family.

3. Giving information without preaching

In all our comments, Brian and I emphasized to Jess and Dan that we were sharing information, trying to educate them as we learned more ourselves. One day, I heard Brian reading to the kids from Consumer Reports magazine, "Listen to this! Can you believe that every Dunkin Donuts cookie has 1/4 cup of sugar and 14 to 29 grams of fat?" The kids were shocked.

Although they were young, it was easy to explain the long-term benefits of eating nutritionally rich foods, the effects of fats and proteins on blood sugar, and the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates.

Brian and I found a nutritional video that we thought was worth viewing, but I knew it would be hopeless to say, "Hey, do you want to watch an educational video with Mom and Dad?" Instead, we settled onto the couch and started the DVD in the same room where both kids were doing homework.

Usually, there is no television during homework time, so it didn't take long for both kids to look up and watch covertly. They were delighted that they were getting away with something. Later, they actually went into the kitchen and started looking at the labels on the food. "Wow, did you know these crackers aren't really 100% whole wheat?" and "This sugar-free syrup has aspartame in it."

4. Reviewing the effects of choices

We didn't want to establish rules or create a struggle over who controlled what anyone ate. Although we gradually purged our house of white flour, white sugar, and white rice, when we were eating out, we never refused Danny food he wanted. Our mantra was "Everything in moderation."

One night, Danny ordered a hamburger and fries at a restaurant and returned home feeling sick, with a blood sugar number of 350. The next morning, I reminded him of how bad he'd felt and we brainstormed. He decided that next time he'd try having only half the roll and substitute vegetables for the fries. Eventually, he decided on his own to forego the roll altogether.

On another occasion, a neighbor had sent over a large bowl full of apple crisp sweetened with sugar. Danny had it for breakfast two mornings in a row. Both days at 10 a.m., I got a call from the school nurse because his blood sugars were so high. The second afternoon, I sat him down. "You've had apple crisp for breakfast for the last two days. Let's look at the effect on your blood sugars." After looking at the numbers, he went to the refrigerator and threw the rest out.

5. Creating a culture

It is easy to feel isolated when you eat differently. There have been many times when our family has been invited to an event where our only choices were chips, white flour crackers and cheese, pizza, and dessert. We have learned to eat ahead of time or to volunteer to bring a salad or a vegetable platter. More importantly, we have learned about solidarity and the need to plan together before we get into those situations.

I want our kids to know they are not alone. Each time I run into people who tell me about how dietary changes are making them feel better, I add it to the dinner conversation. When an organic raw food restaurant opened in a nearby town, I talked to the kids about how popular it was. When neighborhood kids polished off the whole wheat, maple-syrup-sweetened cookies I served, I pointed it out. When we are in a bookstore, we look at the many cookbooks available on whole foods nutrition.

6. Enjoying the results

Recently, my daughter, now sixteen, joined me for a talk I gave at the Juvenile Diabetes Symposium at the University of California, San Francisco. During the breakout session, a mother asked, "Don't your kids binge when they go to friends' houses or out by themselves? Doesn't restricting their food choices create eating disorders?" I turned the question over to Jess.

"Well, I can still eat what I want," she started, "but when I go out with my friends they usually have pizza, Coke and an ice cream. Why would I do that to my body? I'd feel gross afterwards. I might have a slice of pizza and a salad, or a salad and an ice cream, but I would never eat all that junk. I like how I feel and how I look when I eat this way."

Jess is proud of her clear skin, her long glossy hair, her strong white teeth, and her slim figure. Danny's A1c's have been between 6.2 and 7.1 for the five years we have been eating this way. He was the only child on his soccer team to test at the highest level of endurance during his team trials. Both kids can see that eating well has made an important contribution to their looking good and performing well, highly important attributes to adolescents.

Brian and I are also happy that our forty-year-old waists are not spreading and that we still enjoy high energy levels. Seeing tangible results reinforces the eating program we've established as a family, which, as strange as it seems, no longer feels to any of us like self-denial or deprivation.

Now, if I could have three wishes, what would they be? I wish I knew in the beginning that food choices make such a big difference to blood sugar control and overall health. I wish I knew that we would get through the tears and struggles to a better place. And I wish the lessons we learned will give other families the inspiration to eat healthier and feel better. May it be so.

Laura Plunkett is a columnist for Diabetes Health & Diabetesincontrol.com and an expert on Parentingdiabetickids.com. She speaks around the country on "The Challenges of Childhood Diabetes: Strategies for Raising Healthy Children and "Raising Wholesome Children in a Fast-Food World." The Plunkett family has been featured on television and radio as advocates of improving nutrition, increasing exercise and working as a team. Laura and her mother are co-authors of the book, “The Challenge of Childhood Diabetes: Family Strategies for Raising a Healthy Child.” Laura can be reached at: lauramplunkett@challengeofdiabetes.com