Teens With T1D and the Holidays
Exploring the Relationship Between Food and Blood Sugar

They came (about a dozen teens with type 1 diabetes) they saw (a handful of healthy ingredients before them) and they conquered—the making of two different easy-to-prepare holiday appetizers, one sweet, one savory. But the results—a yummy peanut butter-based dip (with a dollop of vanilla yogurt) and Tzatziki sauce made of Greek yogurt, cucumbers and onions—were not the main event for the teens. They were attending an after-school program at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center that was devoted to how to manage their chronic illness—one that has everything to do with diet—at this time of the year. 

“No one should eat whatever they want, whenever they want to, whether they are a person with diabetes or not,” said Berrie Center pediatric endocrinologist, Illeana Vargas, MD, who also has a Masters degree in medical nutrition. Dr. Vargas, who led the group of teens, is passionate about food. She likes everything about it—from shopping for it through the preparation, to the prize itself—eating. She taught the group, as she teaches her patients, how food choice affects blood sugar and she encouraged everyone to be mindful of making healthy decisions (fruits, vegetables and lean meats) whenever possible. 

But it’s not always possible. Dr. Vargas also told the group that it was “important not to feel guilty about our food choices during the holiday time. We can all indulge – within reason. Indulging is a sometimes thing.” 

Also on hand for the session was Kyle Murray, MS, RD (registered dietitian) and a Community Nutrition Specialist at CHALK (Choosing Healthy & Active Lifestyles for Kids). CHALK is New York Presbyterian’s (NYP) community-based obesity prevention program in collaboration with Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and the community of Northern Manhattan. The goal of CHALK is to reduce the prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity in Northern Manhattan by creating an environment in which healthy lifestyles are integral to the lives of all families. Kyle, 30, is also a patient at the Berrie Center and has had type 1 diabetes (T1D) for 18 years.  

“My main role was to be the voice of someone who has been dealing with this a long, long time in both a personal and professional capacity,” said Kyle, adding that at Christmas, it often comes down to, “do you eat five or six of your aunt’s amazing chocolate chip cookies”, or try not to, and “how do you manage the consequences of both decisions,” he said. “There’s a lot to unpack around the issue of using medicine vs. sticking to diet and treatment plans. Mixed feelings abound this time of the year.”

Last month, a CHALK educator, Rafael Rivera, and Dr. Vargas took the same group of teens to a local grocery where they learned a potpourri of shopping tips—like how and where to find low-carb products and why it’s best to shop the perimeter of the store where the fruits and vegetables are found. They also learned that to save money, it’s best to buy produce in season and to stay away from anything pre-cut because it’s less expensive to chop food at home.

The teens convened through an afterschool program at the Berrie Center called Berrie Connect, which provides pediatric patients with monthly opportunities to get together with other kids their age who have T1D and bond over an art project, a science experiment or a cooking activity. After dip-making, the teens moved on to meme-making with art therapist Cara Lampron, where they were able to focus their feelings about food, the holidays and having T1D.  

The Berrie Center’s collaboration with CHALK will be ongoing in 2019.