Vickie De Beer knew something was wrong when her normally energetic eight-year-old son Lucca began to struggle to wake in the mornings, and came back from an annual camping trip with his dad Joe and two brothers looking unusually exhausted.
Although her husband and three sons often returned pleasantly tired from a few days in the wilderness, this was different. Lucca was wiped out, his breath was “sickly sweet” and he’d been asking for far more cold drinks than usual.
At first, De Beer – a food writer, chef and stylist who lives in South Africa – thought Lucca might have a throat infection.
But an appointment with their doctor the next day, and a round of blood tests, revealed her son actually had Type 1 diabetes – the form of diabetes which occurs when cells responsible for producing insulin in the body are destroyed. Unlike Type 2, it is not linked with lifestyle or weight, and tends to first appear during childhood or younger years – and the diagnosis meant Lucca would have to manage the condition for life with insulin injections.
“I was so petrified when they released Lucca from hospital and wished they would keep him there a little bit longer,” De Beer recalls. “I was so worried we would make a potentially life-threatening mistake when injecting him with insulin.”
Family mealtimes also needed to be adjusted.
“From the moment Lucca was diagnosed, we decided that we would deal with his diabetes as a family unit,” explains De Beer. “This was not only Lucca’s problem. We changed the way the whole family ate.”
On the advice of medics, the family stuck to a wholegrain, low GI (glycemic index) diet, keeping a close check on carbohydrate counts, to ensure Lucca’s blood sugars were stable, and managed his insulin dosage. But De Beer still had concerns about their meals.
“I always felt we weren’t managing his blood sugars to the best of our ability. Although his three-monthly blood sugar blood tests were always stable, we couldn’t bring the extreme fluctuations under control.”
Drawing on her food background, De Beer set about creating a low-carb plan in an attempt to help, meaning instead of starchy ‘white’ foods like pasta, rice, bread, cakes and biscuits, they eat fibrous green vegetables, like courgette noodles, green beans and long stem broccoli.
“Not only were his blood sugars more stable, without the extreme fluctuations, but he also had more energy and far less anxiety,” explains the writer.
Now, De Beer has teamed up with dietitian Kath Megaw, refining the recipes in a new cookbook.
The Diabetes Cookbook: Low Carb Recipes For The Whole Family is packed with practical advice for people living with the condition, as well as plenty of personal anecdotes and family-friendly recipes.
De Beer says the family have come a long way since Lucca’s diagnosis six years ago and, now 14, he’s “doing great”.
“His blood sugar is under control even though he is going through puberty, which normally really messes with teenagers,” she adds.
“Diabetes changes your life quite significantly. Everything must be planned very well, whether it’s a school outing or a sleepover.
“Lucca must always have his insulin and testing kit with him and access to food, in case he has low blood sugar. In the beginning, even the smallest outing was wrought with stress, but slowly and surely it becomes your new normal, and you can go out to a restaurant or party without fretting.
“Our new low-carb diet has really improved the fluctuating sugars a lot, and with it, our quality of life.”
Interested? Here are three family-friendly recipes from the book to try now…
500g large courgettes, cut into strips
250g streaky bacon, cut into cubes
250ml double cream
60g grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of chopped parsley, to serve
Bring a large saucepan with salted water to the boil. Cook the courgettes for 30 seconds in the boiling water. Drain and set aside.
In a large frying pan, heat the butter over a medium-high heat. Add the bacon and fry until crispy. Remove from the pan and set aside (keep the bacon fat in the pan).
Combine the cream, eggs and Parmesan in a bowl or measuring jug. Season with salt and pepper. Add to the frying pan and stir over a low heat until the sauce starts to thicken. Toss the courgettes through the sauce and crumble the bacon over the top. Sprinkle over the chopped parsley and serve at once.
1 batch basic tomato sauce (see below)
3 large aubergines, thickly sliced
4tbsp olive oil or coconut oil
6 chicken breast fillets, sliced through horizontally and bashed with a rolling pin to make thinner
3 large handfuls of Parmesan cheese
150g grated mozzarella
For the basic tomato sauce:
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion chopped
2 garlic cloves minced
1/2 celery stick, grated
2 x 400g cans whole tomatoes
2tbsp tomato puree
A handful of fresh basil chopped
Preheat the oven to 200C.
First make the tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Fry the onions and garlic for three to five minutes until softened. Add the celery and fry for another two minutes. Add the whole tomatoes and tomato puree; press the tomatoes to a finer consistency with a fork. Leave to simmer, stirring, for 10 minutes or until the sauce becomes thick. Add the basil leaves at the end. Keep warm until needed.
Place the aubergine slices on a well-oiled baking sheet. Season with salt and drizzle with more oil. Bake in the oven until just soft and light golden.
Heat the rest of the oil in a non-stick pan and season the chicken fillets with salt. Brown the chicken on both sides, in batches, in the pan over a medium heat. Set aside.
In a big, deep ovenproof baking dish (about 25 x 15cm) or casserole dish, begin to layer the Parmigiano.
Start with ladles of the tomato sauce, followed by a layer of cooked aubergine. Sprinkle a good layer of the Parmesan over, followed by some of the chicken fillets.
Repeat the layers until you have used all the ingredients, ending with a layer of the tomato sauce. Sprinkle the mozzarella over and bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until golden and bubbly.
For the cake:
300g almond flour
2tbsp whey protein powder
2tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
250ml sour cream
1/2tsp vanilla extract
For the lemon curd:
125ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
Grated zest of 2 lemons
6 egg yolks
250ml double cream, stiffly whipped
Preheat the oven to 160C. Line a 20cm cake pan or a small loaf pan with baking paper.
Mix together the almond flour, whey protein powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt until well combined.
Whisk together the sour cream, xylitol, eggs and vanilla extract until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until well combined.
Pour the mixture into the cake pan and bake for 35 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.
For the topping, melt the butter in a saucepan, remove from the heat and add the xylitol, lemon juice, the majority of the lemon zest and egg yolks. Place back on a medium-low heat. Cook while whisking continuously until the mixture starts to thicken. Set aside to cool down. Refrigerate for two hours or until it is completely cold.
Fold the lemon curd through the whipped double cream and top the cake with it.
Garnish with the remaining lemon zest.
Type 1 And Type 2: The Diabetes Cookbook: Low Carb Recipes For The Whole Family by Vickie De Beer and Kath Megaw is available now.