This January, people around the world will make resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, cut down on carbs. I have been right there with them in the past, with varying degrees of success in my own resolutions. But this year, I won’t be making any resolutions. Learning I have type 2 diabetes has helped me focus on my health as part of my daily routine.

When everything changed

In 2002, at age 51, I became ill. While I was hospitalized, I learned I had type 2 diabetes. In some ways, the timing couldn’t have been worse: I was just starting my second career as a pastry chef, after decades working in mortgage banking. After the initial panic—what am I going to do? I can’t be a pastry chef now!—I realized the timing couldn’t have been better. I needed to make changes to my lifestyle and diet, cutting down on sugar and carbohydrates, and I saw an opportunity to make changes to my baking so it was more diabetes-friendly.

I was able to teach myself ways to make pound cake, pecan rolls, pies, muffins, cupcakes, and other goods that have about half the carbs you’d get from a traditional bakery item. I started experimenting by using almond milk or whole milk mixed with water to cut down on carbs, then tried different flours, incorporating white whole wheat flour, soy flour, oat flour, black bean flour, and other alternatives into my brownies, cakes, and cookies.

To cut back on sugar, I started using all-natural substitutes, like agave nectar, and trying erythritol. I also bake with a store-bought blend of sugars that tastes delicious. To cut back on saturated fat, I mix butter with canola oil to make a “canola butter” for my recipes since canola oil has less saturated fat than butter. 

I started posting my recipes online and before long, I became known as “The Diabetic Pastry Chef.” I was contacted by a publisher to write a cookbook, also called The Diabetic Pastry Chef, which shares recipes so that people with type 2 diabetes and others looking for sugar-free treats can make their own lower-carb versions of baked goods at home. And in time, I started my own online bakery that ships my homemade treats all across the country. The most common thing I hear from customers is, “I don’t even miss the extra sugar!” That makes me so happy.

Honoring a family tradition

Baking is a family tradition that was passed down by my grandmother and my mother, who were both known for their pies. I can remember helping them both out in the kitchen when I was young; my favorite pie was blackberry. I would go out into the woods to pick the blackberries, and then my mom or grandmother would bake the pie.

Diabetes is also something that’s in my family. My grandmother passed away from complications from type 2 diabetes. My mom and a number of my aunts also had type 2 diabetes, and it has impacted relatives on my dad’s side, too. Even knowing the family history, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be diagnosed. I never really thought too much about my diet—aside from the occasional New Year’s resolution—and I didn’t exercise. Then I got my diagnosis, and everything changed.

In addition to limiting my sugar and carbohydrate intake, I began working out for the first time. What helped me was going to a small gym that focused on women. I could get in and out of there in about 30 minutes, and that made it easy to work into my routine. For a time, I worked out with a personal trainer. Because of my busy schedule with my business, I decided to purchase an exercise bike and light weights. Using those, I try and work out 4 to 5 times a week, and I go for a lot of walks. I have to admit, working out doesn’t feel great in the moment—but I like the way it makes me feel when I’m done.

How I help others with type 2 diabetes

I often give people advice based on my own experience with type 2 diabetes. I encourage them to keep reading about it, because there’s always new research available, and that can give you hope. I also suggest that people commit to small changes in their routines: Limit the amount of sugar and carbs in your diet; exercise when you can; see your doctor regularly; test your blood sugar as directed. These are all basic things to do, but they can make a big difference over time. 

It took a health scare to motivate me to focus on my health, not a New Year’s resolution. My diagnosis of type 2 diabetes changed my life in more ways than I could imagine. I’m proud that my career has taken a turn so that I can bring a little sweetness into the lives of others.

I’m 68 years old today, but I can still feel like a kid again when I eat a slice of blackberry pie that’s inspired by my grandmother’s recipe. For me, food is so much more than just sustenance or indulgence: It’s about family. It’s about memories. It’s about pleasure. But it’s also about choices. By making desserts lower in sugar available to all, my hope is that people with type 2 diabetes can have their cake—or blackberry pie!—and eat it, too.

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