Chef Franklin Becker Talks Cooking With Diabetes
Eating with diabetes doesn't have to be difficult. That's the mantra Franklin Becker's been living by since he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 13 years ago. Becker was an on-the-rise chef when he was diagnosed, but instead of changing his career, the diabetes changed the way he saw food. Forecast caught up with the 40-year-old executive chef of the New York City establishment Abe & Arthur's to talk about his healthy-eating lifestyle and new book, Eat & Beat Diabetes with Picture Perfect Weight Loss: The Visual Program to Prevent and Control Diabetes. In it, Becker and coauthor Howard Shapiro, MD, dole out nutrition advice, meal comparisons, and recipes from the nation's top chefs.
Tell me a little bit about your diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
I was working as a private chef for a business mogul. I was in the Mediterranean on his yacht and I was seasick. I was drinking Coca-Cola and ginger ale to feel better. I got to the point where I just couldn't go on, and I came back to New York and I was diagnosed with diabetes.
What was your initial reaction?
I thought, "How am I going to continue to cook?" I thought my whole life was going to be upside down. In reality, you do have to make modifications to your diet, but the modifications aren't that big.
What changes did you make to your life after the diagnosis?
I lost about 35 pounds over two months. I cut out all of the sugars. I cut out almost everything from my diet. I was a Coca-Cola addict. No more Coke. I wound up eating a lot of vegetables. I wouldn't say it was difficult. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't difficult. The hardest part was the cravings for sugar. . . . There are foods that I don't eat any longer that I'm surprised I don't miss.
What's your eating style like now?
I generally eat several meals a day. I don't generally sit down to a traditional preset meal. I'm more into grazing, keeping my sugars constant.
Do you think your cooking skills gave you a leg up on other newly diagnosed people?
Sure, I was able to create tasty vegetable dishes and tasty fish dishes without really compromising. I changed the amount of fat I put into a dish, the amount of sweetness I put into a dish. I learned to use natural sugars.
So, how would you modify a particularly indulgent meal-say, mac 'n' cheese?
We know how high in fat it is, and there's not much fiber there. I'd incorporate fiber into the dish. I'd add broccoli to that.
What about a burger and fries?
Well, I wouldn't eat that. I err more towards vegetables and fish. I look for healthy fats.
As a chef, how do you feel about people making modifications to your menu to make a dish healthier?
I have dishes that are for those that wish to indulge, and I have dishes that are for those who wish to be more cautious. The diner is coming to your restaurant. They're asking you to prepare a meal for them. I don't take offense to someone asking for no sauce or no oil.
What would you tell others who are trying to eat healthy to prevent or manage diabetes?
Have vegetables, fruits. Some people don't like vegetables. You can juice. You can take a carrot and add it to an apple and drink the nutrients. If you're going to eat fats, eat good fats—canola oil, flaxseed oil, olive oil, and avocados. Nuts are very good.
What's your food philosophy?
We need to eat what we want to eat, but replace the sweets, the rich foods, with some fiber, with some vegetables, with some soy protein. Incorporate the foods that are good for you into your diet. It's not that you can't eat a slice of pizza. Eat a slice of pizza, but don't eat two.
Your book gives readers a visual idea of how a healthy meal can be larger and more filling than unhealthy ones. For example, you show that 4 ounces of pasta and 1 cup of meat sauce has 700 calories, 1 gram of fiber, and 12 grams of fat-compared with the 530 calories, 17 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of fat found in 2 ounces of pasta with a 1/2 cup of veggie sauce, zucchini in tomato sauce, 1 1/2 cups of wheat bean and spinach soup, and 1 cup of marinated mushrooms over greens. What's the idea behind this section of your book?
[Shapiro and I] joke around and we call it "you can do it this or you can do it that," like the song. The choices are yours. The choices you make will dictate how you feel.
The basis of your book is creating diabetes-friendly foods. What's the bottom line when it comes to cooking for diabetes?
There are healthy alternatives to an unhealthy lifestyle. Eat tomatoes. Eat carrots. Consume lots of vegetables. Look at our pyramid [in the book]. Our pyramid basically tells you to eat lots of vegetables and consume fewer sweets. You don't have to starve yourself. You can still enjoy life. You can still enjoy food.