Illustration by David Busby
For years, our family's hectic lifestyles had us reaching for high-calorie fast foods, with large portions of starch, sugar and fatty meats. Exercise wasn't part of the equation, and it seemed as if every family event was an opportunity to feast. We all loved white rice and starchy vegetables like French fries with every meal. And water? No thanks, our drinks had to be sweet: sweet tea and orange juice, by the glassful. The term "portion control" just did not exist in our lexicon. Of course, over a period of years, the ounces of fat became pounds.
Unfortunately, most adults avoid discussing their excess weight with anyone, even physicians. Eventually, in 2006, one of my sisters told me she had been living with Type 2 diabetes for more than a decade. I was saddened that she had suffered from the disease for so long. When I mentioned it to my brothers, they surprised me by telling me that they, too, were fighting diabetes.
Along with my wife, Ann-Marie, I decided to investigate diabetes — its causes, symptoms, progression and complications. Diabetes occurs when the cells in our bodies resist using all available insulin to help the cells take in sugar. This resistance results in sugar building up in our blood, which progressively attacks every organ in the body. Excess weight and obesity does increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which within my family has manifested itself in high blood pressure, reduced vision, nerve damage and more. The financial and emotional costs have been extreme.
By 2010, Ann-Marie and I had crafted a plan to start turning things around. We all had to begin practicing effective portion control to improve our health. We introduced our family to portion-control dinnerware that included a 9-inch wide plate, a 16-ounce cereal/soup/salad bowl and a 10-ounce beverage glass. We explained the difference between the terms "serving" and "portion" on any food item's Nutrition Label: the former is the amount recommended by the USDA and certified nutrition experts; the latter is the amount of food we choose to eat. We pointed out that packaged foods normally contain more than one serving.
We suggested that the family evenly space their meals and snack times, eat meals slowly and learn to enjoy the flavors and textures of each bite without distractions, such as watching TV. Food had to begin playing a new role in our lives: Where it used to be medication to adjust our mood, it had to become the fuel to power and repair our bodies.
We have learned that weight loss is a loss-gain reality. We have enjoyed successes, but we have suffered some setbacks. Changing behavior becomes more difficult with age. Happily, my brothers and sisters have improved their diabetes by managing portions (most of the time), taking their medications and exercising. It has taken years to achieve sustained positive results.
Ed and Ann-Marie Stephens are Richmond-based chemical engineers and the founders of TypeFreeDiabetes.com , an online diabetes lifestyle store, and PrecisePortions.com , a marketer of nutrition and portion control systems