When Steffi Liu, a student pursuing her Masters in Healthcare Administration at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to cook some healthy meals for her fiancé’s parents, she could’ve never predicted what would happen next.

Liu and her fiancé had been dating for about a year when his father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. At the time, Liu happened to be working on a life sciences consulting project focused on a diabetes drug.

“We were trying to help that drug reach patients that needed it the most,” she explains.

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Image source: Steffi Liu

But during her research, Liu was surprised to learn that while medications can absolutely help people living with diabetes, the biggest impact for people like her fiancé’s father was felt with simple lifestyle changes.

“They showed the greatest improvement for patients with diabetes in terms of long-term outcomes, and improving their happiness long term,” she says.

A drastic change

So, Liu and her fiancé helped his parents change their lifestyles after they received the official diagnosis. Initially, the dedicated couple tried teaching them how to cook healthier, and they even went so far as to arrange to have groceries delivered. But it wasn’t until after much trial and error that Liu and her fiancé realized cooking for his parents would be the key to help them change.

But when things took a turn for the worse, Liu knew they had to do more.

“I said, ‘Look, we've got to make a change,’” Liu remembers telling her fiancé’s father. “‘You were just referred to a nephrologist, because your kidneys are starting to fail. This is our last chance to really turn things around.’”

The young couple moved in for three weeks and got to cooking. They filled the freezer with meals that could easily be reheated and took on the task of shopping, prepping, and cooking. And the results were simply incredible. Her fiancé’s father not only lost 30 pounds and felt great, but he was also able to reduce his diabetes medication, metformin, from 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day to 500 mg per day.

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Image source: Steffi Liu

Seeing the results from just one person, along with her experience in the healthcare field, made Liu realize that the practical aspect of nutrition in diabetes is sorely lacking. Because even though a person with a new diabetes diagnosis may meet once or twice with a nutritionist, the emphasis is usually on what the person should eat and doesn’t necessarily go in-depth on how to make that happen.

“There's a disconnect in terms of what you should do and what patients often do,” she explains. “And even if you do meet with that nutritionist and they do work with you to come up with a meal plan, a lot of times the recipes I found online for diabetic patients are kind of terrible. They taste terrible.”

“They tell you, you have to change everything about your life. It's really not delicious at all. I've tried a bunch of them. And you can't tell people to make a really big life change by offering them terrible choices. So, that's one hurdle in terms of just follow-up from a nutrition standpoint,” she says.

The plan to revolutionize diabetes care

Now, Liu’s hope is to build a company that delivers healthy, pre-cooked meals for individuals with type 2 diabetes, especially in the Hispanic-American population, which has a high incidence of the disorder and coexisting complications.

She notes that many times, the struggle isn’t getting people to understand what healthy eating is, but how to actually eat healthy. In other words, it’s the practical application that she hopes to solve. It’s one thing to know you should eat a salad and salmon for dinner — it’s another to have 5 pm hit when you’re starving and don’t know how to cook salmon — or even have it in your fridge in the first place.

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Image source: Steffi Liu

Liu also notes that a program like hers is so important because many immigrant cultures are lacking in medical care and attention and may be dealing with barriers, such as cultural beliefs and language. For example, she noticed a “self-sufficient component” of Mexican and Latin American cultures that may lead individuals, especially males, to insist that they don’t need a doctor and avoid seeking help until it’s too late.

“That’s why preventive medicine needs to be really important, especially for low-income Mexican immigrant populations,” Liu explains. “They are much less likely to go out and seek help because they are afraid to speak in English to other people, sometimes. It's something that's overlooked a lot in our healthcare system.”

A bright future

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Image source: Steffi Liu

This dedicated student, who plans on using her scholarship money to expand her program (which has yet to receive an official name), has seen firsthand how a little push for a healthier life can really make a difference.

“My fiancé's father had resigned himself to thinking, ‘I'm just going to die eating what I like to eat.’ But since he's seen this change, there's a complete 180 in his attitude where now he's actually trying to convince his family members, ‘Hey, you can do it. You can lose this weight. I feel so much better. I have so much more energy. I feel amazing, and you can do it, too.’”

She adds that she hopes that her program will start small with the communities in the most need and spread from there to change nutrition on an even more broad scale.

“Hopefully my program will inspire people to think a little bit more about health, not just for themselves, but also for their families,” she says.

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse with experience in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and she’s the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”