A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 1976, Chef Robert Lewis has always been at home in the kitchen preparing food for friends, family and customers.
However, following his diagnosis with Type 2 Diabetes in 1998, Lewis, who now goes by the name, “The Happy Diabetic”, feared the worst for his own love of great food.
“I suspected that my days of good eating were over,” Lewis writes on his blog. “Yet, as I worked through my ups and downs, I came to realize that the selection of foods I could and should eat was vast and included many of my favorites. This motivated me to attempt to create delicious, diabetic-friendly dishes that were also easy to prepare.
Since that time Lewis has made it his mission to not only to be an ambassador of positivity for himself and his family (which includes 3 children and 6 grandchildren) but to also create amazing things in the kitchen for people of all walks of life to enjoy.
Everyday Diabetes was fortunate to recently catch up with Chef Robert Lewis at his home in Bettendorf, Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi River, to talk about his diabetic journey, his cooking, his latest project and about staying positive.
You call yourself “The Happy Diabetic.” How did you come across that moniker and what does it mean to you?
When I started this personal journey as a type 2 in 1998, I determined right then and there that diabetes was not going to change my positive outlook on life! I have always looked for ways to bring joy to others. As The Happy Diabetic, I work to bring hope as well as happy, healthy lifestyle strategies to people living with diabetes! Putting a positive spin on things will always help us get through the tough times together!
You were first diagnosed back in 1998. What was that time of your life like?
It was an amazing time. My professional life was on a roll. I had just sold my restaurant to take a job as Director of Management Training for a growing restaurant company. My young family was growing and busy, as well. Life was going well!
I started out by responding to a lot of inaccurate information. I struggled with my diagnosis and with making informed choices.
Did you change your lifestyle after finding out?
When I found out that I had type 2 diabetes, I was shocked and surprised. I didn’t know a lot about the disease. My primary care physician handed me a bunch of pamphlets and introduced me to a dietitian, who rattled off a list of foods that were best to avoid. I feared that my days of eating delicious food were over! As a chef and food-lover, the “List of Don’t Eats” probably wasn’t the best way to get me motivated to change my lifestyle!
I started out by responding to a lot of inaccurate information. I struggled with my diagnosis and with making informed choices. I had read somewhere that avoiding carbohydrates was a good strategy, so for the next six months, I tried to cut out carbs…even the healthy complex ones! I convinced myself that I could cure my diabetes by eating less cereal. Hmmmm…. Not too smart, huh? I didn’t take my medicine like I should have, and I wasn’t very regular in checking my blood sugars. Basically, I was stubborn and in denial.
After not making progress toward good health, my wife enrolled me in a three-day crash course on diabetes delivered by a health professional at a local hospital. I like to call this experience my “diabetic spiritual awakening.” I got some accurate information and put to rest my “quick cures.” From that moment, I became determined to take responsibility and ownership of my disease.
Starting each day determined to do my best to control blood sugar was the beginning of true “happy” diabetic living!
What was the most difficult adjustment when you found out you had diabetes?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. I think making subtle changes was important. I started with “baby steps” and worked to develop a lifestyle and a way of eating that would eventually become a healthy habit. I began to focus on taking care of my health in a way I had not done before.
Managing my life, including my diabetes, is a source of my happiness! I have an incredible family. I have a wife of thirty-five years and a happy marriage. I am hopeful for my future. I am successful in managing my health and I have a passion for life. I’ve never had it so good!
As a chef, what is the absolute favorite food that you wouldn’t want to live without?
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how much I love macaroni and cheese. Go big or go home, right?! Of course, my portion sizes are a bit smaller, and I watch my nutritionals in each and every meal. I also love Asian flavors, open fire grilling, and roasting fresh veggies! Making me hungry, now!
What advice would you give to the amateur cook wanting to make magic in the Kitchen
- Learn how to read a recipe
- Learn how to handle a French knife, from the cutting to the sharpening. A sharp knife and techniques make cutting those fresh foods so much easier!
- Cook more often to develop confidence in the kitchen! Practice builds speed and organizational skills. Once you gain the basic skills, it will be fun to add your personal touch and to become a little more creative in the kitchen!
- Be an adventurous eater! Dare to try new flavors. You can’t learn all there is to learn about food unless you’re an open-minded eater.
- Add fresh herbs, spices, and foods with robust flavors! If you intend to use less fat, salt, and sugar, you need to replace the flavor another way! Get creative!
- Jacques Pépin …Read all of his books to learn from a master!
- Have fun!
You’re starting to record podcasts and will launch your own show. What’s that experience been like?
People want to learn how The Happy Diabetic has developed a health-centered approach to cooking and eating, so everywhere we go we are intentional about talking about this! A podcast is another effective way to bring our positive message to the listening community.
Jason, my son, is the producer/engineer and co-host of our show called, “The Happy Diabetic Kitchen.” He brings a real-world perspective from the vantage point of an offspring in the gene pool of a type 2 diabetic. Jason knows that, with a diabetic father, he is at greater risk of developing type 2. Jason has some amazing stories to tell regarding his quest for a healthier lifestyle. Together, we probe ideas and share strategies with podcast listeners. We also interview some fascinating people with some really awesome contributions to share!
As a chef and food-lover, the ‘List of Don’t Eats’ probably wasn’t the best way to get me motivated to change my lifestyle.
What tips can you offer to someone newly diagnosed with diabetes?
Stay positive! It is a big shock for a person who finds out that they have diabetes. Look for information and support. Do not assume you already know what to do. You can do this!
You do a lot of presentations each year. For you, what is one of the biggest highlights from your time on the road doing it?
I get to listen to the stories of people who have been diagnosed, face the struggle, and move forward to live well and successfully manage their diabetes! This is very inspiring to me! SO often, I hear people talk about how they continue to live well with diabetes.
I also get to talk to folks who are not doing so well, and it is very satisfying to know that I can help them in some small way. I am passionate about sharing the message that you can live well with diabetes! I understand the challenges because I live them every day, and I have personally found some strategies for cooking and eating that I love to share with other people living with diabetes.
I just received this note from a couple we recently met at a Taking Control of Your Diabetes (TCOYD) Conference in Washington DC.
My husband and I met you yesterday at the Washington D.C. conference. I told you that my husband was diagnosed 1 week ago. We can’t wait to receive your cookbooks! I ordered all of them. My husband and I feel that it was a blessing that we had a chance to meet you. Being diagnosed with diabetes is life-changing [for my husband,] as you know but it has also changed my life as well. You really helped us realize that diabetes can be managed and that we can still eat great food.
One of the biggest fears when first diagnosed is what you will be able to eat …and can we eat enough to not have to feel hungry! Just being a “taster” at your demonstration has transformed our lives to know diabetes will not defeat us. Thank you for sharing your expertise and time with us and with so many others who are struggling with this diagnoses. We will be following your success and continue to be frequent browsers of your web site. We are so excited to try more of your recipes “of LOVE,” the true meaning of all that you put into your recipes. We really were blessed yesterday with meeting you and thank you again for all that you do.
Your new friends,
John and Elizabeth”
It’s things like this that make it all worthwhile.
You can visit Chef Robert Lewis, The Happy Diabetic on the web at www.happydiabetic.com
Photos courtesy of Chef Robert Lewis.