In the Kitchen with Karen Graham, RD, CDE

August 19, 2014

From our In the Kitchen series on, Karen Graham talks about diabetes, and it's connection to local farmers, sustainability and more.

Karen Graham has worked as a diabetes educator for over 25 years in Manitoba, and has counseled more than 5,000 people to lose weight and live a healthy life with diabetes. Graham has also worked as a renal dietitian in British Columbia helping people better manage their kidney disease. Across Canada, she is a sought-after public speaker and is known for her entertaining and educational talks. Graham has been a published nutrition author for over 15 years (Diabetes Meals for Good Health and Complete Diabetes Guide for Type 2 Diabetes), and currently works as a Community Nutritionist in Kelowna, British Columbia. We talked to Graham about the importance of changing our eating habits to improve overall health, protect the environment and prevent diabetes.

What is the main focus of your cooking? 

When I get home from a busy day I like to be able to throw together a meal that is quick-and-easy, delicious and nutritious. Like tonight, for supper I made Swiss Steak which was cooked in 15 minutes. I served it with leftover potatoes and a vegetable. We had three small pieces and my husband and I only ate half, saving the other half for supper tomorrow night, which will save us prep time tomorrow, and helps us cut back on our meat. When I have guests I also cook from my book. Last night I had family over and served Chicken Cordon Bleu and whipped up a bannock to go with it, and for dessert I made a cherry cobbler (cherries are in season right now in the Okanagan). I mix and match with the recipes from my cookbooks that explore diabetes meal planning techniques.

Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus? 

As a Certified Diabetes Educator I always want to make sure my menus meet the needs of people with diabetes and heart disease. That means not too much sugar and salt, but just enough to curb our cravings to help give us the kick we need for satisfaction. Fiber is key to keeping your bowels and stomach healthy and managing diabetes so I include lots of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. These foods are also an amazing source of antioxidants and a key to keeping your blood sugars and weight in better control. My son’s an Optometrist, so he’s taught me to emphasize foods that keep our eyes healthy including dark greens like spinach and kale, eggs and my popular vitamin A-rich “Crustless Pumpkin Pie.” 

What is your relationship with local farmers? 

For the last 30 years my husband and I have enjoyed farming at our acreage where my husband was the first Certified Organic apple grower in Manitoba. Learning to grow vegetables from a young age helps you develop a love for nature and a connection with where our food comes from. We’ve recently moved to BC where we don’t have as much access to our own backyard crops, but we love to buy fruits and vegetables from our local farmers. I work as a Community Nutritionist in BC and we work to help individuals and communities become more connected with farm produce with programs like “Farm to School” where local farm product is sourced and served in school cafeterias.

Are you incorporating locally grown foods into your dishes? How? 

I tend to eat seasonally. So when the asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn or apples are ripe, that’s what my family is eating mostly. When peaches are in season, that’s the time to make my breakfast smoothie. I am trying to be more diligent to source out free range chickens (and eggs), and pork and beef from local farm animals bred in a more humane way. This is challenging though, as it takes more planning and it is more expensive (it’s very difficult for local farmers to compete with the lower prices of meat and eggs in the big grocery stores). But I believe that as with all things in life, we don’t have to be fanatical, but we can try and make some small changes. I really believe that good health comes from a balance.

What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to eating right for Diabetes? And how are you addressing them? 

My readers biggest concern is the constant bombardment of food: advertising on TV, Internet, billboards, proliferation of fast-food restaurants and coffee shops. A constant pressure to eat. Even farmers markets have become havens for selling donuts, sweet beverages, and now in BC, liquor; they are no longer about just fruits and vegetables. We have too much choice, and most of us are not very good when the unhealthy choice is the easy choice. Especially when faced with long commutes and excess screen time, stopping for a meal on the run becomes normal. I try and bring readers back to the family meal, by showing that a healthy delicious meal can be made quickly and easily in our own homes. It’s almost like a new way of thinking again. We know that when children eat meals with their families they are happier, do better in school, and they are leaner which decreases the risk of diabetes. Preventing diabetes needs to start with our children. We learn our eating habits in childhood and if we are going to start managing this epidemic, we need to bring back the family meal. This means turning off cell phones and computers, eating slower, enjoying our food, and starting to feel comfortable to talk and share.

How important is sustainability? 

Very! In a food sense, sustainability means eating lightly and eating close to home. Here are 7 steps I would suggest if you want to eat in a more sustainable way. #1 Eat less (it is estimated that we are eating 20% more calories than our grandparents did); the more you eat, the more energy is required to grow, package and transport food; #2 Eat out only very occasionally in fast-food restaurants; these rely on large amounts of packaging, generally never recycled; #3 Eat less meat (some may choose no meat) and along with this, eat more vegetables; #4 If you have some garden space, start growing some of your own food in an organic way (community gardens are an option if you have no garden space); #5 Buy local to reduce the energy required to transport foods; #6 Instead of drinking soft drinks, bottled juice and bottled water – drink tap water (bottled and canned beverages create huge volumes of waste, even if recycled it takes energy to recycle and potentially leaches toxins in the process); and this one might be unpopular, but #7 drink less coffee, and when you do drink it, make it at home to save on the paper coffee cup that gets thrown out and is rarely recycled. Growing coffee and growing sugar cane takes away huge tracks of land that could be used for growing nutritious food, or converted back to nature. 

What steps do you take toward conservation in your meal planning? 

I call my menus “traditional” in that they do include your standard meat, potato and vegetable. However, over the generations people have learned to eat more meat, and the emphasis in my meals is smaller portions of meat, fish or poultry, and a lot more vegetables. Most people won’t make drastic changes in their eating, but if you could get everyone to eat “less” meat, this would be a positive step forward. I also include a variety of non-meat meals such as Baked Macaroni and Cheese, Sun Burger (made from beans and sunflower seeds) and Vegetarian Sauce for your pasta. My meals teach moderation, and help people reduce their portions. I also encourage exercise and a great way to get exercise is gardening and walking in nature. When we are in nature, we can experience the healthy lifestyle that conservation practices help maintain.