Adrian Kiger is a writer who grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. She’s had type 1 diabetes since she was eleven. After years of struggling with weight issues and blood sugar levels, she found a diet that works for her – vegan. Adrian, who has written a children’s book “Veronica, the Vegetarian Diabetic,” talked to ASweetLife about her path to veganism and how it’s helped her improve her health.
You’ve been a type 1 diabetic for 25 years. Did you (or your parents) change your diet when you were diagnosed?
My mom had always been a gourmet cook and paid a lot of attention to the quality of food in our house, even I before my diabetes came along. We, my dad and two younger brothers, ate only whole wheat bread, wholesome foods, and a big salad that accompanied supper, which we ate together as a family almost every night. Absolutely no sugary cereals or sodas were around. My mom prepared most things from scratch and always had a garden.
When I came home from the hospital after being diagnosed, there was Crystal Light drink mix in the house. It was new on the market at the time. There were a lot of sugar-free products too. Other than that, there wasn’t much of a need for a big, dramatic change. My mom also began making some sugar-free desserts. The biggest change was the fact that suddenly someone in the house had diabetes, and the intensity around food was heightened.
What led you to become a diabetic vegan? Were you a vegetarian first?
I was not a vegetarian first. Although I have never eaten a lot of meat, I did love a good cheeseburger and a tasty piece of salmon. But I never really liked the smell of cooked meat, so I rarely made it for myself at home.
My best friend from childhood was raised completely vegetarian, so I was exposed at a young age to the concept of vegetarianism. A few years ago, I started dating a strict vegan who had been committed to his lifestyle for 20 years when I met him. I was intrigued by his dedication to it. I was also open to trying something new at the time. I knew that my health had been in a holding-pattern: I was managing, but not thriving with diabetes.
Was the transition to veganism difficult?
You have to be ready to make a change, it cannot be forced on you if you are to succeed with a rather drastic lifestyle adjustment. I was confident that trying veganism would help me focus in on a very specific way of eating which would serve me and my diabetes. I also knew that the numerous chunks of cheese in my fridge weren’t doing my waistline any favors and that cheese and crackers were a convenient comfort food for me. Beyond that, I could do without eggs, and was already drinking soy milk (I’ve since switched to unsweetened almond milk, which has a minimal impact on my sugar levels.)
How did you transition? Did you give up everything at once, or little by little?
The initial experiment proved very positive: First, it was so helpful to have support from my boyfriend who was schooled in veganism and had a lot of recipes and products to share. We made many meals together, and this helped my transition a lot. I went cold turkey, or cold “tofurkey,” I should say, and felt really great. I lost weight, and I felt lighter in general. I paid more attention to why I ate what I ate, and what foods were giving to my body or taking away from it in terms of energy, apart from what effect a food would have on my sugar level. Second, it has always been true that you wake up every day with yourself, and what you put into your mouth is totally up to you. When the first buzz of something new, a relationship, a new exercise routine, wears off, how committed are you? Going vegan meant the simplification of food choices. I didn’t feel so overwhelmed at grocery stores, because I knew what sections to totally avoid. You really hone in on the healthiest stuff as a vegan shopper: fruits & veggies, beans & grains, nuts & seeds. These foods give your body so many nutrients.
What are your protein sources?
There are so many sources of protein, you just have to educate yourself about where and in what foods they may be hiding. The protein myth has people convinced that they need much more protein than they really do.
I started to love tofu, tempeh, and beans, which are all full of protein. Tofu can be so delicious when you bake it in some soy sauce and garlic and use that in wraps with raw veggies, or on top of rice, or quinoa. I was never that attached to meat, and the textures of tofu or tempeh were not that weird for me.
What about vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 I mainly get from supplements. I make a smoothie in the morning with one banana, ½ cup of blueberries, water, and a scoop of natural protein/spirulina powder that gives me 50% of my daily protein, and 110% of my B12. This gets me through the morning. It’s important to get all of your vitamins, and when you eat a vegan diet you stand a better chance of getting those vitamins from the natural (grown in the ground) food that you’re eating in more abundance. But you have to be disciplined about eating those foods, which means being committed to preparing them as well.
Has your hemoglobin A1c improved since you became a vegan?
Yes. I used to swagger above a 7, sometimes almost at 8, and now it stays put at 7 or below. This also has to do with steering clear of carbohydrates that cause spikes, and eating the more natural ones.
I also think that a hemoglobin A1c reading is not the holy grail of your overall sugar control, it is an average. I used to eat a lot more food that was not as healthy as what I eat now, and my A1c would still show up normal, because it was an average of highs and a lot of lows.
Has your vegan diet influenced your weight? Is weight something you’ve struggled with?
I struggled with eating issues even before I was diagnosed. I was always drawn to the sweet, packaged foods that I saw in the homes of my friends, simply because they were “taboo.” Having diabetes made those treats look even more appetizing, and as a result I would just inject myself with more insulin to cover any indulgences. I gained 20 pounds almost immediately after going to boarding school at age 14. I had already been living with diabetes for 3 years, and I think having a close family at home had helped keep me in line. On my own and with tons of fairly unhealthy food to choose from in the school cafeteria, it was a huge challenge for me to make the right choices for myself. I eventually grew out of wanting to eat everything that I saw, which had been big part of my teenage rebellion, no doubt. My weight has been up and down over the course of the past 25 years, now it is stable.
Does your endocrinologist approve of your diet?
I began a great relationship with a homeopath/naturopath in my area. I am on a quest to know more! Because of Western medicine, I am alive and live a relatively normal life, but because of Eastern medicine I can pinpoint exactly what my body needs in terms of vitamins, minerals, and supplements, and that is very individual. I was tired of visiting doctors and not feeling educated by them, like my questions were intrusive or they saw me as a patient who was obsessing about the details, when in fact the doctors were all about the numbers. Diabetes is more than a numbers game. It’s about thinking – how can I give my body more of what it’s lacking? What is it lacking other than insulin that is in turn affecting how my body is processing the sugar and insulin shots?
How did your family respond to your vegan diet?
My family was suspect of my becoming vegan from the get-go. I think it was a mix of “is it all about this new boy with the strange diet?” accompanied by their own issues with what they are comfortable eating. Nobody likes their comfort levels called into question. There is a common belief that eating meat is good for you, what nature intended, and that caused a stir. My new eating habits were a foreign country. My family joked about things that were “organic,” and “vegetarian,” or “vegan.” But the more my family saw that my choices were helping me to be healthy, the more accepting they became. I just stayed true to myself and to my desire to keep learning about how food can help diabetes. I also chose to not enforce any of my new found views onto people unless they were sincerely interested in hearing about them.
Being a diabetic means putting a lot of thought into the food you eat, as does being a vegan – the combination of the two, a diabetic vegan, seems a little overwhelming. Do you ever feel that way?
I felt from the very beginning that living with diabetes and being vegan is a sort-of double whammy. Diabetes is hard enough. I didn’t think of it so much as denying myself, because you can make any dish vegan, but those dishes are not often easily accessible, you have to make them yourself. This means more work, more thought in your preparation. However, as diabetics, we already have to plan ahead, so planning to eat vegan food just becomes part of that. But when you’re tired and hungry, or you’re at a work event and the carrot sticks aren’t enough for you, and what’s in the salad dressing is a mystery…well then, I break down and eat something with dairy in it.
Because of this, I don’t advertise that I am a “vegan,” because I am not a strict vegan. I accept that there will always be that moment that I fall off of the wagon, so to speak. My priority is balancing my blood sugar with living and enjoying my life to the fullest. I roll with how my body feels, give it what it needs. And I recognize that what it need and wants are two different things entirely.
What would you say to diabetics who are considering a vegan diet? Should they become vegetarians first and ease their way into veganism? Or is it better to just jump in?
Although veganism is an extremely healthful way of living that helps me to maintain stable blood sugar (not a small thing), as diabetics it is important that we do not feel denied. If you are considering veganism, you could try it for one week. While you’re at it, read John Robbins’s “Diet For a New America.” It is an illuminating book that made me look at food from a totally new perspective. Make your experiment fun: mix it up, research the new things you’ll cook in that week, print recipes from the internet, go to a restaurant that you love and see what vegan options there are, what side dishes you could combine, etc. And of course, be sure to check your blood sugar regularly to make sure the change in diet is working for you. And check with your doctor before you make changes if you are concerned about your insulin regimen or other medications you take. You can write down what challenges you each day. Do you feel energized? More hassled? More creative when you cook? How were your sugars, any changes? Go from there… if homemade vegan pizza left you wishing for the mozzarella, no biggie. Don’t judge yourself. If you can’t abstain from dairy completely, then at least you will grow an appreciation for veggies and more whole foods which are really good for you.
What is your favorite vegan cookbook?
Great vegan cookbooks are out there, and they inspired me. The one that really got me cooking was Isa Chandra Moskowicz’s “Vegan with a Vengance.” She brings a certain “hip” to being vegan, she makes it a quasi-rebellious and a fun lifestyle choice. Her dishes are delicious, diverse, and satisfying. I learned that almost any dish can be made vegan. Vegan pancakes exist, so does vegan lasagna, and they are scrumptious. No feeling denied and no guilt to boot!
Adrian Kiger earned her undergraduate degree at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC and attended the Master’s Program in Accessories Design at the Instituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy. She has spent many years teaching Italian language at West Virginia University. She currently works as realtor and assists in an upholstery design shop.