Chef Art Smith Discusses Taking Diabetes to Heart
Danielle Galian: Considering your history with Type II diabetes and the staggering statistics of Americans who have the same disease, why do you think enough attention hasn't been paid to food and its healing abilities to help fight this disease. I feel like there's this rhetoric in America of just taking medication and you'll be fine. Nobody talks about organic foods and different supplements to help fight the disease.
Art Smith: Well, every case is very unique. And as we've seen with Tom Hanks (he's very open about his Type II Diabetes) peoples assumptions have been proven not to be necessarily right. I think it's all about empowering people to consult with their doctor and to develop a program, which I did. I come from a family that's challenged with Type II Diabetes, I've lost family members. I understand what the disease can do and what the repercussions are if you don't do something about it. I have the reality of that and I've also come to terms that I too suffer from that and that really was the wake up call (for me).
I've been doing this campaign, Taking Diabetes to Heart with Merck, for almost a year now. And I've been greeted with a lot of love. And it comes from the most un-obvious of places; the farmers market, the man selling a lonely little bowl of onions will say "thank you Chef Art, thank you for what you're doing." And I do think that food makes everything feel and taste that much better and I think as a Chef, if I can somehow use food and my message in such a way to reach people, that's a great thing. I'm committed to that by the opening of Life Kitchen in Chicago on Hubbard and Clark. And we're getting chef's in restaurants to offer diabetic friendly menu items as well as food trucks. And what I love about Life Kitchen is it's a diabetic friendly menu. It was created to be that way.
I was diagnosed in 2007, and in 2009 when it got really bad. It was emotionally bad because I was fearful of my life. And in that time my partner had dealt with cancer. And I'm in the business of treating other people glamorously and not myself. And I've taken care of a lot of beautiful and important people in the world. And I'm great at it. But I wasn't great at taking care of myself. What was wonderful was when I became in-tune with that and attentive, a number of people I'd taken care of came to me and commented on how happy they were that I did. From the First Lady to Oprah they said, "Art we're so happy that you're taking better care of yourself." And through that, I took a vow that if I was going to do this and be public about it, I wanted to help people and that's why I chose to partner with Merck and Taking Diabetes to Heart.
Part of the challenge was the fear, I had a lot of fear. And for many people that's one of the biggest challenges. And what you know you don't fear and that's why this educational program is important to really inform people and to really advise them on the simple things. In this age of healthcare it's about having a great doctor. And what does it mean to have a great doctor? A great doctor is someone you can talk to. A doctor that you have a relationship with and feel comfortable with and that you can talk to and share your concerns and ask the right questions. Doctors are going to advise you on what to do. And one of the things my doctor advised me about is the importance of monitoring my blood sugar. And one thing that is also overlooked is low blood sugar which is something to be really cautious of. Most people check their blood sugar with their meter and when they see it's on the low side they think they must be doing something right. But you really need to manage it and the only way to do that is to get your A1C checked. For me when I had those challenging days I wouldn't have my A1C checked for over three months. The old Art Smith, when I'd have a challenging day, would go start eating. But now the Art Smith that's more conscious of his health will drink a glass of water, take a little walk, do something that's more in-tune with who I am. So I walked over to the CVS clinic and had my A1C checked, had my blood pressure checked and got a flu shot. I have a big life and I travel a lot so it's important that I take time. For me the hardest thing was in everything that I do having some sense of normalcy and being on a schedule. I'm not a schedule kind of person. But you really do have to schedule yourself by eating small meals and eating salads. When you're cooking, don't think of just yourself but think of feeding your whole family so you don't have that sense of isolation. Think of shopping smart and cleanse your life of things that are not healthy.
DG: So it sounds like Taking Diabetes to Heart is about looking at your whole life, your whole health in such a way that doesn't neglect the important parts that you just mentioned like going out for a walk, having a salad, or making a healthy dinner for the entire family and how doing things like that can make a huge impact on your health and the health of everyone around you.
CAS: Yes, very much. What you start taking attention in your health, they (family and friends) will do also.
DG: So on the website, there are 5 personal healthy eating tips that you mention. Generally speaking, which one would you say is the most difficult and which one is the easiest?
CAS: I think the hardest thing for most people is understanding portions. Everything in this country is big. The other day I went shopping and saw these beautiful salad plates. You know what I did? I took out the dinner plates from my cabinets and replaced them with the salad plates.
DG: That's a good tip!
CAS: I read a great book that was based on Asian philosophy about eating all your meals out of one little bowl and that somehow becomes your mantra in a sense of self control since Asian culture is so much more disciplined.
Everyone knows not to skip meals and when you're faced with that D word, diet, people automatically think of salad and I'm not talking about that. It's best to create meals the whole family can eat including yourself. It's important, and as living proof of it, diabetes II is an incurable disease. And sadly, if you have that challenge in your family then you're more likely to have it. And so it's important to inform everyone in the family how this (portion control) is important. This is not a trend, this is not a fad, this is something that we as a family must do. And as an advocate for kids, I've taught a lot of kids healthy cooking at Common Threads to help them make better choices. Keeping a lot of processed sugary snacks and high fats and sodium away from them as babies because eating foods like that when they're young, they're more likely to eat it when they become adults. Just because something says diet, or diabetic friendly, or fat free - you know what, nothing's better than something that's whole like whole oatmeal, quinoa, eating carrots raw or steamed or sauteed with a bit of olive oil. And steering away from anything prepared. I love Rachel Ray because she taught people that you can make a meal with simple ingredients very quickly. Keep in mind that when it comes to food, when we think of comfort, we always think of those foods we know we shouldn't have. So just remember that comfort is a state of mind - comfort is not defined as food. It's what is defined in your mind from eating the food. And just remember it's about being happy with oneself. So if you are happy with yourself, everything you touch you'll find comfort in.
DG: What wonderful words of wisdom, Chef Art. Finally, I'd like to end off on a fun note, what are you having for dinner tonight?
CAS: I had a very nice chopped salad. And I think we're going to go have some soba noodles. I love ramen noodles with vegetable broth. It's delicious and filling.
DG: Sounds delicious, where can people go to get more information on Taking Diabetes to Heart?
CAS: I just want to reiterate how it is important to work with your doctor to develop a diabetes management plan that is right for you which may include diet, exercise, and if appropriate, medication. Everyone's experience with type 2 diabetes is different so it is important that people work closely with their doctors since there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. The website where people can go to get more information is takingdiabetestoheart.com.