In a state where Sunday's menu is planned over a fried oyster po-boy on Friday, it's easy to understand how many people have converted food on the brain to inches on the waistline. The trouble with living in a city that not only celebrates food but also identifies with high-fat, high-carbohydrate dishes like jambalaya, red beans and rice, and sausage gumbo is that it's taking a toll on residents' health. No one appreciates that better than 51-year-old New Orleans native Louis O'Brien III.
"Whatever I wanted, I ate it," O'Brien says. "I was eating like a king. I just didn't know I was killing myself doing it."
When he was diagnosed with diabetes, O'Brien says weighed 350 pounds, had pain in his feet and registered a blood glucose level four times the norm. He was by no means the only one. Louisianians are developing and dying from diabetes at an alarming rate. The state is ranked No. 1 in the country for the number of deaths from diabetes and No. 10 for the ratio of its population with the disease.
"People who think diabetes is just a little 'sugar trouble' aren't seeing the whole picture," says Rose Wade, a certified registered nurse and program coordinator at East Jefferson General Hospital's Diabetes Management Center. Because diabetes affects so many parts of the body, it can cause a variety of medical problems including heart disease, stroke, blindness and amputation. "The pancreas in people with Type 2 diabetes no longer produces enough insulin to pick up all of the sugar in the blood and supply it to the cells for energy," Wade says. "As the leftover sugars build in the blood, the blood becomes sticky, much the way a can of spilled soda will eventually become sticky. The blood can then stick to cholesterol and triglycerides causing blockages, which can cause a heart attack. If it's a blood vessel going to the brain, it can cause a stroke."
Carrying extra weight can exacerbate the situation, making the cells more resistant to a person's own insulin.
Many who suffer from diabetes, particularly Type 1, have no control over whether or not they develop the disease. However, the majority of diabetics, even those with a hereditary predisposition, can either prevent its onset or manage it through diet and exercise.
O'Brien is a prime example of how much control a person can have over diabetes. One of the most important things he did was to begin exercising every day. Between walking, weightlifting, doing calisthenics and making changes to his eating habits, O'Brien lost 100 pounds, got his glucose level to a manageable range and went from taking eight medications a day to four. He hopes that one day he can get off of medication altogether.
"I feel so much better," he says. "I can get out of bed without moaning and groaning, and I can walk father now than I probably ever could."
O'Brien also cut out soft drinks and pastries and started eating more vegetables, brown rice, lean meats and fish. These are the kinds of choices Alon Shaya, executive chef of the restaurant Domenica, says are becoming more accessible in New Orleans eating establishments.
"The beautiful thing about what's happening in New Orleans is that all of these restaurants are starting to get foods from local farmers markets," Shaya says. The trend not only supports local farmers, but provides restaurant patrons with foods that are more naturally flavorful. Because the fruits and vegetables found at a farmers market are picked when they are ripe instead of being harvested early and shipped to Louisiana, the natural sugars have had time to develop, often making it unnecessary to flavor them with additional sugar, salt and other seasonings.
This means diabetics, those with a family history of diabetes or anyone who wants to eat healthier can go out on the town and partake in New Orleans' tradition of food worship. Just replace red beans and rice with stewed okra and grilled shrimp, order pickled vegetables instead of buttered corn or replace french fries with roasted cauliflower. In fact, Shaya says cauliflower drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with chili flakes and roasted to a golden brown is a big seller at Domenica. "I don't think people even know how good it is for them," he says.
Perhaps the best way to control and prevent diabetes, Wade says, is to remember: "There are no forbidden foods. It's the amount of food that you eat and the exercise you get. Exercise is key."