We're thrilled to connect with Robert Lewis in Iowa, a professional chef for four decades who also happens to be living with type 2 diabetes since his early 40s. He's had an impressive career in the food industry, and within our own D-Community many may recognize him as the always-joyful and smiling star known as "The Happy Diabetic."
Robert travels around the country sharing recipes and talking food to both PWDs (people with diabetes) and the general public, and today we're excited to feature him here at the 'Mine about his own story, the cookbooks he's written and will soon be updating, as well as his young diabetes podcast and what's cooking (ha!) for 2019. Enjoy!
Talking Diabetes and Food with Chef Robert Lewis
DM) Hi Robert, can you start by sharing your diagnosis story?
RL) In 1998, I was on vacation traveling home back to Iowa from Colorado, and wasn’t feeling too well – very tired, very thirsty, had to use the bathroom a lot… something just wasn’t right. Went to visit my doctor a couple weeks later and after testing, the diagnosis came back on type 2 diabetes. My blood sugar was upwards of 500, and my A1C was over 11% at the time. There was no delayed diagnosis and we had no diabetes in the family as far as we know, but years later my older brother was diagnosed with type 2 and my mother was adopted so there could be some genetic link there. But my official diagnosis in 1998 was the first. That became my journey, though honestly for that first year or so, I was in denial. I totally didn’t want to deal with it and wasn’t managing very well. That didn’t go over well and was causing problems.
What changed for you?
One day, I had an opportunity to visit a local hospital and take a two-day course on everything you’d ever want to know about diabetes. For the first time, I was really surrounded by people with all types of diabetes, and saw that there was an entire community of people and it wasn’t just me alone. That really was my diabetes spiritual awakening. And I began my journey of managing my diabetes the way I needed to, and just live healthier than I had been.
You were already a professional chef at that point, before the T2 diagnosis…?
Yes, I’m a trained chef. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York on May 4, 1976, at 3pm. I’ve been a chef who’s worked for some amazing hotels and restaurants, have owned my own restaurant, was the corporate chef for Cracker Barrel for many years, and just lived a chef life. That doesn’t mean I’ve abusive way, just I love food and am very food-centric. That’s my thing. We’re now in Davenport, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River, and I work for a regional restaurant chain.
OK, you were the corporate chef for Cracker Barrel?
After graduation, I worked in the Hyatt hotel chain for several years in different states, and traveled to different state hotels. It was a great experience and so much fun. Then, I transitioned to a Lebanon, TN-based company called Cracker Barrel that had 18 restaurants at the time. And I stayed there as the corporate chef for Cracker Barrel for seven years as the director of training.
You also owned your own restaurant?
Yes, it’s something I had always wanted to do. My wife’s from Iowa and we moved there and opened up two restaurants in Orange City. There was Brinkers (like Hans Brinker and the silver skates) that was a full service restaurant, and the Pantry Cafe a small downtown breakfast and lunch cafe that was kind of like a Mayberry-style diner theme, if you recall the Andy Griffith Show. They offered pretty much everything, instead of having one specific type of food. We did that for several years and enjoyed it so much. Eventually, we sold them and I am now with a regional restaurant chain for about 25 years. My side passion has been The Happy Diabetic.
How did your professional chef life evolve after your diabetes diagnosis?
When I was diagnosed with T2, I met up with some great dietitians who helped me understand the science of the carbs, fiber and sodium that would all make up a diabetes-friendly lifestyle and way of eating. I went on a mission to start creating some recipes. I went to a local bookstore looking for recipe books written by chefs who actually have diabetes, but couldn’t find any. The books were only written by doctors and educators. So, I set out to change that. My first cookbook was in 2000, and now there have been three; I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years.
How did you take on the title of "The Happy Diabetic”?
After I did that first women’s cookbook that took about a year, it just kind of happened. My daughter one day said to me, “You’re the happiest guy I know!” and that’s really how it all started. That mantra stuck. Over the years, I have worked with Pharma and media companies, and with organizations like ADA and AADE and Taking Control of Your Diabetes (TCOYD) among others. It’s been a true blessing to do this.
Can you talk about finding the online community and your “Happy Diabetic” name use?
My finding the DOC was very organic, and it’s been a lot of networking with people who are sharing their stories and doing great things. One of those has been Bill Woods, who’s a great guy and was online for many years at “1 Happy Diabetic” sharing his story about life with type 1 diabetes. We came across each other at one point online, and had a conversation and agreed there was no issue. There was definitely a way for us both to be online and in this community as we were. Plus, he was known as “1 Happy Diabetic” versus my “The Happy Diabetic.” And he’s moved on to other things in his career at this point, too. We’re all part of the same team and community.
What are you up to these days?
I’m still working a lot with TCOYD and doing regional events. We’re working on a couple new cookbooks, and also working on a video series for next year. They’ll be new recipes, updates to older cookbooks with newer recipes, and just putting the polish and new twists on old standards that people have come to love.
We hear you also have a podcast, too?
Yes, our podcast is called The Happy Diabetic Kitchen. We’re up to 22 episodes now in our second year. It’s available on Stitcher, iTunes, Google Play Store, and on my website. That’s really a conversation between myself and my eldest son Jason, who doesn’t have diabetes but is very health-oriented and struggles with his own health issues as we all do. So it’s a dialogue between us and guests, with recipes on the podcast, and it’s just a lot of fun. We have mascot cats in the background… just in a fun, relatable way. We’re always looking for new people to talk to and ways to bring the message to people.
Can you talk about some of the food trends that exist within the Diabetes Community and how you navigate those, as a professional chef with T2D?
So this is Chef Robert talking, because I’m not a doctor or dietician or certified educator – though I have had so many conversations with professionals in health over the years. The reality is, and what I like to use as my standard, is sharing what works great for me, in the hopes it's best way to help people. I like to look at it as a 'lifestyle way of eating.' I’m not into fad diets or trends, but rather adopting ways of eating that are manageable to maintain over a long period of time and work with your lifestyle. I’m all about higher fiber, less carbs, less sodium, lots of high flavor and balanced eating. Generally, of course, that means balanced foods with more vegetables, less processed foods, less on the simple carbs, but not a 'diet.' I don’t like that word, because it means you’re sacrificing something -- giving up something you like.
Great way to look at it. There are certainly a lot of psychosocial aspects of dealing with food and diabetes, no?
Yes, there is a lot to say about the mental side of diabetes. So much of it comes down to planning and being able to live each day as it comes at you, looking forward and not in reverse on whether you had decent numbers, or ate healthier or got your exercise in for the day. It doesn’t always happen. Surrounding yourself with positive people is key. I’ve met so many people who don’t think their doctors are proactive enough, or don’t know what to do. This is America. Shop around. Find someone you can connect to and you feel comfortable with. You have to take ownership and be proactive about your own disease. Focus on how you can live healthier.
Do you get asked a lot about ‘miracle’ foods like cinnamon or an African tree moss that can supposedly cure diabetes?
All the time. I don’t think there are any miracle foods or supplements for people with diabetes. But people ask me about cinnamon or coconut or pomegranates being amazing for blood sugar control… no. There’s not a miracle food or cure or other than yourself, being diligent. I usually ask people at my events if they’ve heard that cinnamon is very good for your diabetes, and then I say that, “I’ve been eating three Cinnabons a day and it doesn’t do a thing for me.” Again, it’s a case of buyer or consumer beware. Just know what myths are versus reality in managing your diabetes and how you eat what’s best for you.
Can you talk about your personal philosophies in managing your own type 2?
Sure, I take medicine and see my doctor, exercise and eat right. I don’t think it’s only one thing that will help you kick into full gear in managing diabetes. It’s a lot of little things that make up the book on management. Who am I to judge someone who wants to eat a carb-less diet, or a sugar-heavy way of eating? All I know is that doesn’t work for me. I am into eating the foods that I love, in moderation. One size does not fit all, in diabetes. Just like when it comes to A1C – that varies, and people have different preferences and can live a healthier life within a reasonable range of numbers.
I take Metformin mostly, and in the last four years I’ve been taking the once-a-day injectable Victoza and have had amazing results. That’s been diabetes life-changing for me. My numbers were amazing and I dropped some poundage. In the last eight months, I’ve been using the once-a-week injectable medication Ozempic and I like it. The rest is food and exercise. I don’t use a CGM, but am talking about it with my endo as a possibility. For now, I use the DiaThrive meter and all the supplies are delivered to my house without needing to wait in line at pharmacies.
With food-centric holiday celebrations in full swing, any thoughts to share about recipes or diabetes eating in general?
My advice to people in general, is to not treat eating at holiday parties like it’s your last meal on the planet. Just eat like you normally do. Take smaller plates, monitor your portions, don’t go to those big holiday parties ravenously hungry. Just enjoy the environment and people and eat in moderation while you’re there. On my website and blog, I have some great diabetes-friendly recipes for the holidays – including an amazing pumpkin crumble cheesecake made with Splenda, brown sugar and almond flour, so it’s gluten-free.
Overall, just don’t get freaked out over-eating during the holidays. Beware of the “Diabetes Police” that always seem to have an opinion on how you should be eating. No. you know how to eat and what you like or don’t like, and what works and doesn’t for your own diabetes management. It’s the holidays, don’t punish yourself too much!
Thanks for sharing your story and food smarts, Robert! Now our stomachs are grumbling so it's time to check out your recipes...