A Chat with Robert Lewis, the Happy Diabetic
Chef Robert Lewis, aka the Happy Diabetic, shares his experience living with Type 2 diabetes, connecting with audiences through food, and how you can begin making healthy meals at home today.
When were you first diagnosed with diabetes, and did you experience any of the usual symptoms?
I was diagnosed in 1998 while on vacation. And yes, actually, I did. Coming back from a vacation in Colorado, I was feeling super tired and sluggish, very thirsty and had to urinate at almost every rest stop. I knew something was wrong, just wasn’t sure exactly what it was, and after a couple of weeks after I got home and things persisted to be the same, I visited my doctor, and that’s where I got my diagnosis.
Were you surprised? What was your initial reaction?
Well, that’s a really good question, because I really didn’t know what diabetes was. And so I think my reaction was a little confusion. I remember that the doctor came back after my testing and pricking my finger and drawing some blood and the whole deal. He came back with lots of pamphlets and booklets and said, “Here you go. This should tell you everything you need to know about Type 2 diabetes.” He made an appointment for me to go see a certified diabetic educator, who showed me how to use my glucose monitor. I went to see a dietician who tried to help me understand the whole food component in a very complicated way, and I walked out of that whole deal saying, “You know what? This is not going to be a disease for me.” I was pretty much in denial.
I tried to self-diagnose myself. I read some articles on the internet about carbohydrates are bad, so I figured, I’d just stop eating cereal. I was in denial for at least six months and things were not going well for me. But I thought I’d grow out of it. I figured, if I changed the way I ate, I’d cure myself. I just had a really weird sense about this whole thing and was very ashamed and kind of embarrassed about it.
Well, because most people think you eat yourself into diabetes. And so that’s what I thought happened, and that’s what people would say. People that I met who didn’t know anything about diabetes would describe their eating regimen and say things like “oh, no more cheeseburgers for you. No more candy, no more ice cream.” It was all very confusing.
Tell us more about the food component. Were you already a chef at this point? Did you already have culinary training?
Yes. I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of chef schools, in 1976. So I’d been working in big production kitchens, and when I was diagnosed, I was holding down a job which I still have today, which was the Director of Training and Development and Corporate Chef for a chain of restaurants here in the mid-West. So although I wasn’t in the kitchen every day, certainly this came in my later years.
With all that culinary experience, was it that you still find that you had a lot of trouble adjusting your diet or did your training actually help you with it?
I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t eat differently, except I stopped eating cereal. During that six-month denial phase, I ignored the diagnosis. So one day I came home and my wife, Cindy, said, “Hey listen. You’re in denial and this is not working any longer. We’ve got to get a hold of this disease. It’s serious and you’re not taking it very seriously.” And I said, “Well, honey, what do you suggest?” She said, “Well, I called our local hospital. They have a two-day course on diabetic education, and I’ve enrolled you in the course. And you’re going to go.”
And I said, “Honey, that will be great. Can’t wait. Thank you so much for taking the lead on that.” But in my mind, I’m thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to that course. There’s no chance. You’re not going to get me there.” I pulled up my calendar and said to my wife, “So when is it?”, thinking I could probably figure out a way to get out of it. She said, “Well, it’s funny that you ask. It’s actually tomorrow.” And I replied, “There is no way.” She held her hand up, and she goes, “Listen. I called your boss. You’ve got the next two days off. I made sure there’s nothing on your schedule. So here’s what’s going down: I’m going to pack your lunch. I’m taking you to the hospital. I’m dropping you off at this door, and I’ll be back at five to pick you up. And you’d better come out of that door at five o’clock.”
So off I go with my little lunch bag that said, “Robert” on it, and I go to my diabetes class. So as you can imagine, I was not into it. I did not want any part of it, but for the first time in my life, I was suddenly surrounded by all these other people dealing with the same emotion and the same challenges as me. And through this amazing educational program, I learned I am not alone. I have a disease that is very bad. And I needed to take control of it. So that was sort of my diabetic spiritual awakening and I left those two-day courses thinking to myself, “Robert, you’ve got kids and you’ve got grandkids coming. You better figure this out.”
And I took classes in it. And once I took ownership in it, really, then some amazing things started to happen – I started to focus. I was able to seek out people with the right information. And I just slowly started making some lifestyle changes. I mean, it’s a roller coaster journey. Let’s just be honest about it. But I started making some lifestyle changes, started taking my medicine now when I was supposed to, taking my blood sugar way more often, using my little laboratory blood glucose kit as my report card, and just started eating better and exercising more and I had some really nice results. That’s how it happened for me. I think denial is a very common thing that happens to people with diabetes.
They’re embarrassed by it and they don’t understand it. My doctor should never have given me pamphlets. I mean, he should have spent a little moment with me to explain to me what’s happening in my body. I took ownership in it and just started living it and realizing that it’s not an embarrassing thing and I didn’t do it to myself. But I’m going to live better. I tell people today, “You want to get healthy? Get yourself a good disease.” You know, because you really focus on your health that way. Of course, let me just also say, I don’t wish a disease on anybody, but there’s nothing like a little focus to help.
When you said hereditary, does diabetes run in your family?
Well, that’s a good question. Here’s what I do know. I have an older brother, Howard, who in later years after I was diagnosed, was also diagnosed. But what we don’t know, is my mother was adopted. So she was adopted in Boston, Massachusetts, way back when. And she’s passed away. So there’s no real communication about that. So we just have to assume that it was probably somewhere in the lines.
Very sorry about the passing of your mother. Did you notice any diabetic symptoms in hindsight?
No, she was the healthiest person in the world. She ate right, took care of herself, exercised. She was incredibly healthy and she spent. She’d go to the doctor all the time. She was very keen on her health.
Tell us about the Happy Diabetic. How did you get started with it and why?
It started with me trying to figure out recipes that tasted good. I remember going to a Borders book store after I was diagnosed looking for diabetic cookbooks because I wanted to learn how to cook what I thought was diabetic-friendly and the only cookbooks I found at Borders at that time were cookbooks written by doctors or dietitians; none by chefs. None that I thought had a real flair for the kinds of foods that I ate. I’m sure those books had good recipes, but it didn’t appeal to my style of cooking. Stir fry, quick, fresh vegetables, and great flavors.
I started creating some recipes and worked with some really good dietitians who helped me with some of the nutritional components, so this was just really for me. And I was doing some community cooking class events through a local community college, just kind of a fun little side thing. And so one of the classes I did for the community was healthy cooking, because, I thought, “Well, I’m kind of eating healthy these days” and created some recipes and thought a couple of one-hour classes. It was really awesome.
Sitting in the audience was a producer for a local NBC affiliate. And after the class, she said, “You know what, Robert, this was really great. We have an afternoon talk show for a half-hour with a host and they talk about people in the community and there’s usually a chef cooking. Would you like to come on and do some recipes?” I said, “Sure, sounds great!”
So, I did that for about six or seven weeks. It was a lot of fun. I was developing my chops. Every year, the NBC affiliate had a women’s lifestyle fair. So a two-day event and they’d bring people in like Al Roker and Richard Simmons. It’s a trade show and it’s vendors and speakers and that kind of thing. I was invited to participate to gain exposure and given a booth. So in the process of preparing for that, my youngest daughter said, “Hey dad, we’ve got to call you something. Like ‘Chef’ something. We’ve got to come up with a fun name.”
She continued, “You’re the happiest person I know. Why don’t you call yourself The Happy Diabetic Chef? So we said, “Okay, this is goofy but okay.” I took three or four of my recipes and made about a dozen to 50 copies, thinking I’ll just hand out some recipes and a meet and greet, I guess. So long story short, I do the cooking demonstration, clean up, go back to my booth, and there are about 40 women standing there. And I go through the crowd a little bit, and I go in my booth and I turn around and I said, maybe somebody died. I didn’t know what they were doing there. And I said, “So, hi, everybody. Can I help you?” They said, “Yeah. We’re here to buy your cookbook.” I handed out every recipe I could, and the next year, I wrote our first cookbook. The next time I attended that event, I sold every cookbook I had.
My family and I said there’s something here that can make a difference in someone’s life. So that’s how The Happy Diabetic got started. And I went back to that health fair a bunch of times and just from word of mouth, people would call me to tell me about or invite me to do a cooking demonstration. Even if they couldn’t pay me, I would go. After I figured out my messaging, I would get calls from Abbott, hospitals, or other organizations to speak or cook at health fairs. In short, I plowed some ground, planted some corn, watered it a lot, and hope I got a crop.
This really sheds some light to how many people are looking for ways to cook healthy at home. They want to learn how to make it and they just want to know the technique. What was the recipe you were giving out? What are some of your favorite recipes?
Oh my gosh. I don’t even remember. But I’m sure it was some sort of stir fry, some sort of Mediterranean-flavored stir fry. Chicken and vegetables. These are all the things you can buy at the local supermarket. That’s one thing I’ve always done. I’ve always tried to create recipes that you could buy [ingredients] at your local Ralph’s, Albertson’s, Kroger. Wherever you were living, you could buy them there. I started thinking “How do I turn ordinary ingredients into something extraordinary?” And that’s what I do – simple and easy. Let’s make three dishes in 30 minutes. Simple, but diabetic-friendly that really taste chef-inspired, chef-created. Not casseroles and not bland, but something with some flavor. Those are the kind of recipes I love to make for people. Simple desserts, simple stir fry dishes, grilled salmon skewers, couscous salads, tomato, and marinated onion salad, simple and easy, grilled pork.
Let’s talk about some of the sweet stuff. How do you recommend making desserts at home? What are some ways that you implement that sweet taste into your cooking?
I’ve cooked with a lot of sweeteners like Splenda or Stevia, and the one thing that I’ve learned is that although people have various tastes. Some people don’t like the taste of stevia, although it’s all-natural. Some people don’t like the taste of Splenda. They think it tastes weird. And none of those really bake really well. If you’re going to bake with Splenda or stevia, really what you have to do is make it about 50-50 with sugar because you need the caramelization. I don’t really endorse sugar-free foods because they tend to be higher in carbohydrates. They tend to have some sweeteners in it that can make your body do amazing things that you won’t like. And I guess these give you a false sense of eating more because it’s sugar-free and it’s good for you. But there’s typically more carbohydrates, which is not a good thing for you.
Instead, what I tell people today is, “Make the dessert you want. Make the apple pie you want.” I do have an amazing Splenda almond flour cheesecake that’s unbelievable. And cheesecake is a little different because you don’t need the caramelization, but I tell people to make the dessert you want. Make the brownie that you want. Make the cherry pie that you want, but let’s focus on portions. Don’t deny yourself the things you love. But eat a moderate portion and put the rest away and be done with it. I use Splenda on oatmeal. I use stevia on cereal and oatmeal. I love espresso, so instead of putting sugar in my espresso, I’ll use stevia.
So what are some easy ways that someone can get started with healthy cooking today?
I always have this arsenal of flavors. You’ve got to focus on your portions, number one. That’s got to be key. But people tend to cook so blandly that they just don’t become interested. So I, first of all, will always use a monounsaturated style fat, like peanut oil, canola oil, or olive oil, so always have those as my basic cooking oils to use, but there are 128 calories in a tablespoon of olive oil. So it’s pure fat-causing, calorie-enhancing fat. It’s pure fat. So the idea would be to cook with less fat so I like to use non-stick pans when I cook so I don’t have to use so much fat. I like cooking sprays, too. Because I’m going to cook less fat, I’m going to have some of my favorite herbs and spices because I need flavor. So I’m always going to have, usually sea salt, but I don’t use a lot of it. I’ll use fresh cracked pepper and I’ll buy the grinders. I always have thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, Italian spices. And even like a Mrs. Dash makes great, salt-free seasonings that are really good.
I have five or six go-to herbs that I really like. I also have garlic always close by, including jarred garlic. I can open the jar, put my spoon in, add it to the dish. Those are really my go-to spices because I can take chicken, fish, Mediterranean stir fry, those kinds of Mediterranean-style herbs and they just go with anything. So if I’m going to make salmon, I’ll take some salmon filets, a little extra virgin olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil, marjoram, something like that, dry it and marinate it, and I’m done.
If you were going to come over to my house, you would find in my pantry, lots of beans. White beans, black beans, red beans, because what I love about beans is, they’re cheap, high in protein, and high in fiber. Makes you full, right? They help curb your blood sugars. So if I’m making stir fry dishes or if I’m making a Mediterranean chicken dish, I’ll always put a white bean in there. Or if I’m making spaghetti sauce, I might put white beans in my spaghetti sauce, just to enhance that protein and that fiber. If I’m making a Caesar salad or some sort of chopped salad or something at home, I’ll throw some beans in there, black beans. Rinse them off. All these beans are getting rinsed and washed really good.
Walking through the frozen section is a great way to buy veggies and save some money.
You know what, I’m glad you mentioned that because people think that frozen vegetables are not good. But the reality is, they’re amazing. They almost are more nutritional because they’re picked right away and then froze right away and they’re inexpensive. One of my favorite things is rice cauliflower.
For the folks who forget to take the chicken out of the freezer before leaving for work, Robert has a cooking hack for you.
One thing I tell people to do and I do it all the time, is I go to the store and I’ll buy a bag of frozen chicken breasts. There’s maybe five, or six, or seven in there, and I’ll thaw the whole thing out in the bag on a plate in my refrigerator overnight. Then I’ll marinate them, grill or bake them one or all at a time. After I cool them down, slice them up and then I’ll portion them in baggies and I’ll put them in my freezer. So if I would come home tonight and want to cook chicken and some kind of Asian chicken stir fry, I just go to my freezer, open the freezer, grab a couple of bags of already cooked and sliced chicken breasts. Thaw them out in the microwave and them to my vegetables.
What are the utensils that every home cook needs in their drawer?
I think you need a good nine-inch or ten-inch french knife. That’s the knife with the bigger handle, with a bigger blade that tapers down to a point. I think you need a good french knife. You need good steel that keeps your knife sharp and a couple of paring knives. You don’t need much, maybe some measuring cups, vegetable peelers. You don’t have to spend a lot of money — it’s not necessary. But a good quality knife will last you. You need a sharpening system because knives get dull. If you don’t want to sharpen knives periodically, find a hardware store or somewhere in your town that you can drop the knives off and they get professionally sharpened. Cooking is much more fun with a sharp knife. Sharp knives go where you want it to go and they’re much safer to use because you don’t have to use as much pressure.
We know a dull knife is a dangerous knife.
It is. People always ask me, “How do I cut an onion so I don’t cry so much? My eyes water.” And I’ll say, “Well, show me the knife you’re using,” and it’s usually a very dull knife. So what happens is, when you cut the onion with a dull knife, you rupture the membranes, which secrete all that eye-creating crying fumes. But a super sharp knife will cut it cleanly and you’ll have less of that.
Cookware is the same way. You don’t need to buy expensive cookware and I would not suggest it. I would spend all my money on amazing ingredients and save money on cookware. I buy inexpensive cookware and when it gets funky, I throw it out. I’ll go to IKEA sometimes, or those kinds of places. Just buy basic, non-stick cookware and when it starts to fall apart, throw it away because I only paid 15 or 20 bucks for it. But I tell people, don’t let the cookware hold you up.
What are some words of empowerment that you have for the Type 2 audience?
Okay, this is a great question. I wake up every day, and I say to myself, “Robert, you’ve got to do better today than you did yesterday,” because what I don’t want to do is beat myself up for how bad I did yesterday because I can’t bring that back. So now I have to focus on today and try to do better. So I do wake up every day and say. “Robert, you’ve gotta do better today than you did yesterday.” And yesterday might have been a good day, but maybe I had four pieces of pizza because I was out of control instead of the two that I would normally have. And I’m not going to beat myself about it, but I’m going to say, “Today I’m going to do better.” That’s an example.
Here’s another thought I’d like to leave people with, do you know why your rearview mirror is so small and the windshield of your car is so big? Because it’s not about where you’ve been, it’s about where you’re going. So look forward. Because what we do is we beat ourselves up about how bad we’ve been, and the bad diabetic we were. And that we weren’t very good and, “Oh, my gosh,” you know? Get over that because you can’t bring any of that back. I also want to tell people, everything in moderation. Start slow. You really can’t eat an elephant in one bite. Don’t start making dramatic lifestyle changes. If you’ve never used olive oil, buy a little thing of olive oil and play with it and try it. Don’t go out and spend $300 of all these amazing food ingredients and stuff because you saw me cook with it. Start with one thing and get really good, because in six months, when you develop your lifestyle, now you’ve developed a lifestyle way of eating that you just. You got this!
We love that. Robert, please tell our audience where they can find you and how they can get in touch with you.
Absolutely. So, my website is HappyDiabetic.com and that’s going to be the number one resource. You can certainly Google me — Chef Robert Lewis, Happy diabetic. Go to YouTube. I have a YouTube channel, but if you go to my website happydiabetic.com, you’ll find links to my podcast called The Happy Diabetic Kitchen, which is really a lot of fun. We interview diabetics doing great things, and we talk about recipes and it’s just a fun event for my son Jason and myself. He’s my co-host and producer, so it’s a really great father and son show.
All my social links are there, too. I’ve got some Facebook pages, I’ve got a group page that where people are sharing ideas, but HappyDiabetic.com is probably the one-stop-shop. All my cookbooks are there, as well as recipes, videos, and a link to contact me. If you go to the contact link, it’ll go directly to my private email. I answer all my emails and I would love to hear from you.
There’s also a fun thing on my website I’d like to mention. There’s a little tab that says, where you can leave me a voicemail. My statement to everybody out there is, “Because of my diabetes, _____.” So I’d really like to hear from you about what happened in your diabetic journey that made a difference for you, that inspired you. Who did you meet? How did you turn it around? And then what I do, is on my podcast, I have a portion of my podcast called, Because of My Diabetes. And I play these recordings about inspirational things that people did, or met, or saw, or ate that can help influence others.