Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Remembering the "Free Food"
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1990. Some of you who have been more recently diagnosed had an advantage over me--one of your first lessons in diabetes management was most likely carb counting. I learned to count my carbs and bolus accordingly at the same time as receiving my first insulin pump. That was in 2000, when I was 18. So what was it that I did for the ten years before that?
I used a little something many of us know--the Diabetes Exchange System. Bear in mind this was at least a little different than exchange rates for money. Mealtime flexibility was not exactly the norm, but you could exchange one type of food for another. Did you want three starches? Two starches and a fruit? Three fruits? The whole point of exchanges was never clear to me, as I was very young. I knew it meant I had to measure, count and weigh nearly everything that went into my mouth. I knew it was annoying--I can hear my mother's voice now, saying to my 11-year-old self, "That's an awfully BIG half-cup of ice cream." Or, "Did you weigh those Goldfish crackers before you put them in that bowl?"
Oh man, just look at that book in the picture. There was no pocket guide when I was growing up. The book had about the same dimensions as one of those black and white composition books you used to get in school all the time. The book's cover had a dark teal border and a center illustration of various foods. No fancy actual food pictures here.
Carb counting opened up a whole new door for me, and as someone setting off for college, it meant a lot to me. Everything previously "forbidden" suddenly had a chance. If I wanted to have a snack with 15g of carbs, it didn't matter as much whether it was the healthy fruit I was supposed to eat or the half a candy bar my hormonally wacky body craved. What I remember the most about the old exchange system is that I had a set number of foods that I had to eat at each meal, broken up into their basic varieties: starches, proteins, fruits, veggies, fats and the ever-fascinating "free foods".
It's the free foods that came into my mind today at the grocery store as I bought a package of sugar-free store-brand gelatin cups. One of the few free foods I ever found appealing as a little kid was Jello. I preferred orange or lime, but there were no pre-filled cups readily available to stuff into my Little Mermaid lunchbox. My mom would make it, put it some kind of small plastic container, and toss it in. Sometimes, like around a holiday or a birthday, I would opt to take a baggie of celery or cucumbers instead of my usual baggie of carrots so that I could also have a sliver of sugar-free pie or icingless cake with my sandwich and crackers.
That's really when the exchanges came into play. I never remember them being a big deal at the time, but looking back on it, I can definitely remember feeling trapped and guilty around food, especially as I got into my teens. Some kids use adolescence to experiment in sex, drugs, reckless behavior, or getting into fights with their parents. I remember sneaking Italian Ice Cups or extra potato chips in the school cafeteria. I'd pay for them, of course--I was a good kid after all.
The most recent list of free foods that I found on the Mayo Clinic website can show you why I was always frustrated with the so-called "free foods"--the simple fact that most of them are beverages and condiments. So I could enjoy large amounts of:
Herbs & Spices
Low-Sugar or Sugar-Free Jelly
without guilt or too much worry over my blood glucose numbers. I have noticed that my previous free-food-favorites celery and cucumbers have been moved into the "non-starchy vegetables" category. Every once in a while, I get a craving for that old standby snack of my youth--celery sticks with Italian dressing. Mom always made the Good Seasons stuff from the packet, and I remember it was always tasty. Was I hungry in between snacks? Free food snacks would have to be found, unless my blood sugar was low.
Maybe I should blame the exchange system for me not making my own Jello more often.
I did a victory dance in the grocery store aisle a few months back when I discovered Splenda-sweetened Italian Ice Cups. I may have even asked them where they'd been all my life.
What is it that you remember about the good ol' ADA Exchange System?