Can Latin Food Be Compatible with Managing Diabetes?

Buckwheat Garden Salad BeLatina Grain
Photo / Recipe Credit TheHealthyfoodie.com

Did you know that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have a greater possibility to die from diabetes than whites in the United States? In fact, it is said that Hispanics have 50% more of a chance to die from diabetes. This means we should certainly take some precautions before satisfying such dire statistics. It is already known that the food in our culture is not described as the healthiest, but that doesn’t mean we are completely in trouble. According to Chef Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, there are ways we can manage diabetes or any diabetes-related danger with our beloved Latin foods. 

Belatina healthy eating IG @leticiamoreinosschwartz
Chef Leticia Moreinos Schwartz

First, let’s understand why we should fear this disease.

Diabetes is a disease that affects blood sugar levels. In the scenario that someone is diabetic, that means that their blood is not circulating properly through their bloodstream.  Instead, sugar starts accumulating within the blood system, causing many medical problems if not treated adequately. These issues include but are not limited to loss of vision, developing heart disease, and amputation. 

There are three types of diabetes. There’s Type 1 diabetes, which manifests itself on its own. Pretty much the body starts attacking itself. Sadly, there’s no way to prevent it at the moment. Then, we have Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is preventable. This is the one we should keep in mind at all times. The last type of diabetes is gestational. This one only affects pregnant women and usually only lasts through their pregnancy. Women who have been affected by gestational diabetes do have a higher possibility of acquiring Type 2 diabetes in the future if they are not cautious with their lifestyle. 

There’s another part of the disease and it’s called prediabetes. Basically, prediabetes is an irregularity in blood sugar levels, but not enough of an irregularity to be determined as diabetes. Oftentimes, I have noticed that people are not talking about the prevalence of prediabetes in our culture as well. The reality is that prediabetes is present in our Latinx community. This is when people start trying to take care of themselves, usually through methods that might be seen as a crash course to health. But life doesn’t work that way. Prediabetes shouldn’t be anyone’s wake up call. Prediabetes only means that you’re moments away from developing diabetes and now you have to be painstakingly careful. This could be avoided if the right measures are taken earlier in life, which most likely be less of a hassle then. 

Chef Leticia Moreinos Schwartz understands the discomfort in altering eating habits, so she’s made things easier for us. 

She recognized that the food in our Latin American culture has continuously been exposed to is heavy in fats and carbohydrates. We have historically loved our meals that are composed of arroz blanco con frijoles, carne frita, y maduritos. Or how about our pastelitos, empanadas, y el cafecito cubano? I know. It all sounds delicious, but that’s also been part of the cause of the diabetic epidemic within our community. Our community has gotten used to indulging without thinking of the consequences. 

Now, the recommendation is not for you to cut all of these savory delights from your diet. She actually states that you can incorporate the foods you’ve become accustomed to into your everyday meals. You just have to tweak it around a little bit, but hey, this is good news! 

One of the things that we should start doing is watching our portions. It is no secret that the dishes in the United States are often supersized, but our type of dishes aren’t meant to supersized. Preventing diabetes or managing diabetes comes down to eating habits. Start asking yourself if that’s too much rice (it usually is), but the point is to be cautious. Lucky for us, there are plenty of tools and resources out there that can help us determine what constitutes acceptable serving sizes

Let’s not get too salty after this suggestion, but Chef Moreinos Schwartz says our Latinx culture needs to reduce the use of salt. Rather than using salt, she recommends that we use spices and herbs. This should be simple, too. A quick stroll through the spice aisle will have you acquainted with many palatable options. You can do some cumin, thyme, basil, garlic, oh my the options are endless! Perhaps you can even make a little sofrito. Yes, make your own. Do not go buying that overly processed sofrito I know you’ve seen. That contains an excessive amount of sodium to preserve the contents and well, sodium is salt. That’s what we are trying to avoid. 

Another thing she suggests is using stock. Whether it’s chicken or vegetable stock, you will still end up with exquisite results. Use stock to increase the flavor potential to soups, sauces, or rice dishes. One of my personal favorite recipes is to cook my chosen grains (brown rice, couscous, quinoa, etc.) of the day with vegetable stock instead of water. By using stock, the need to use salt is eliminated. 

Aside from replacing salt with herbs and spices, Chef Moreinos Schwartz says people should become vigilant of the meat that is being consumed. Some meat, such as red meat, may contain high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. Not only is concerning to those worried about diabetes, but it can also put you at risk of heart disease. Ideally, you should be consuming plant-based alternatives like tempeh, tofu, and beans, since they are not inundated with saturated fats and calories as animal products would typically have. However, if making the switch to plant-based proteins is not feasible by you, then she recommends that you consider leaner meats, such as chicken or turkey. If possible, registered dietitians have advised people to remove the skin of chicken for healthier results. Try turkey bacon for your early mornings and grilled chicken for your dinners. Once you start taking the steps to use leaner meats in your cooking, then you may be able to avoid a lifetime of worry.  

Starches are also something you need to monitor as well. Starches may include rice, potatoes, corn, and other food items. Monitoring starches can be difficult at first, especially since our Latinx culture seem to love rice. I don’t know about you, but my Colombian roots urge me to have rice in the morning with el calentado (scrambled eggs, rice, and beans, mixed together), rice for lunch, and dinner too. It’s apparent that we may have a problem and a slight obsession with rice. However, we can replace our regular starches with other things. 

Chef Moreinos Schwartz told Everyday Health, “Instead of white rice, use brown rice. Instead of regular pasta, you can use whole-wheat pasta.” 

By replacing our starches to their whole-wheat versions, you start intaking more fiber, which is better for your health. It’ll help you feel fuller for a longer period of time. Just like Chef Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, many others suggest that people should be careful about the types of starches used.

Brown Rice Belatina  

There’s a reason I mentioned that my go-to grains are brown rice, couscous, and quinoa. That’s because I have tried to be watchful with my food way before today. I have a lot of family members that have been diagnosed with diabetes and prediabetes and it’s honestly worrisome. I knew from an early age that I didn’t want to end up in that same predicament, so I started learning about healthier methods to incorporate in my daily meals. This is why I don’t use white rice any longer. It is way too processed and doesn’t really have any health benefits. 

Now, rice isn’t only used for our main courses. It is also used for some of our dessert dishes. Arroz con leche anyone? As delicious as desserts with starchy foods may taste, they are not good for our blood sugar levels. Remember, all the food that we ingest is turned into sugar, which is used to energize our bodies. Combining starch and sugar is extremely harmful to anyone’s blood sugar levels. Try substituting these processed sugary delights with a cup of fruit. I promise you that it will satisfy your sweet tooth. Stay on top of your blood sugar levels by checking what foods pose a greater risk to blood sugar levels using the glycemic index.

Dragon Fruit Smoothie
Photo Credit Tofobo Family

All these recommendations are beneficial to your health and your family’s health as well. But you have to put in some effort to make this your new lifestyle. You need to plan to be successful in a healthy lifestyle. Everyday Health stated that a study published in 2017 confirmed that people eat more fruits and vegetables when they eat home more than five times a week. 

I know meal planning can be a drag, but sometimes we must sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our own future. Start small. Make food one day and use the leftovers to create meals for at least the next two days. I’m a fan of making mixed vegetables with broccoli and having it ready to add it to the meals of my week. If not, I just add (very little!) cheese on top of it and eat it. Of course, spice up those veggies. Add cumin, garlic, and saute some onions while you’re at it. Just don’t leave out your own take of sazón. It makes all the difference in the world. Trust me. That way you’re not just eating plain vegetables in the end. Getting to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to be all that boring. 

As you can see, you can keep augmenting the flavors in your dishes while maintaining that authentic latin touch. You don’t want to end up a statistic now, do you? Don’t forget to include others into your lifestyle either. Altering your lifestyle for healthier results in the future shouldn’t just include yourself or someone who’s diabetic. It should include everyone who you’ve decided to share a meal with. The more the merrier, especially when it’s to promote health.