Diabetes-Friendly Recipe Ideas and Tips with Michigan Chef Chris Oliver 

There seems to be something in our chemical makeup that makes us crave good, hearty comfort food when the winter arrives.   

But for diabetics cognizant of food portions and main food group balance, a beef stew loaded with salt and potatoes isn’t always a realistic dinner option.  

Whether you’re just coming to grips with your diabetes diagnosis and need a little guidance, or you want to try something new in the kitchen this winter, soaking in a bit of expertise in that area can’t hurt.  

And expertise is exactly what Michigan chef, entrepreneur and diabetic of 21 years, Chris Oliver, provides.  

Oliver, the owner and founder of the Unburger Grill in Dearborn, struggled with Type II diabetes before switching to a plant-based diet. At his worst, he recalled his blood sugar levels teetering on 13 mmol/L.  

“My diabetes became just uncontrollable. Nothing was working and it was getting really out of hand,” said Oliver, during a phone interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “I reached out to a number of alternative health groups that I saw on Facebook and that eventually led me to veganism.”  

Eliminating meat was huge for Oliver’s day to day health. Animal proteins have saturated fat, and replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat in a vegan or vegetarian diet can be helpful in making your body more sensitive to insulin, which helps control blood sugar.  

In Oliver’s personal experience, carbohydrates have been detrimental to his health, especially when consumed in large amounts. Particularly for Oliver, potatoes have been a thorn in his dietary side.   

“I love potatoes with such a passion, but they undo my day in a hurry,” Oliver said. “There are certain things like a potato, I can tell you 30 or 45 minutes after I eat them, this whole sluggish thing that sets in.” 

Oliver’s cravings for hearty, American comfort food never really subsided when he ditched meat. His personal desire to mimic burgers and sausages and load them with all vegan ingredients led him to launch Unburger in 2018. 

Going vegan isn’t a prerequisite for living with diabetes. But if you’re looking for hearty wintertime recipes that won’t send your blood sugar soaring, here are two of Oliver’s favorite ideas:  

Baked Cabbage 

“It’s so simple but it’s a baked cabbage, I just cut off the bottom of a whole cabbage and, it’s just a good, old fashioned green cabbage,” Oliver explained. “Cut the bottom, cut the stem out, and pack it with herbs of your choice.”  

Rosemary and fresh thyme are Oliver’s herbs of choice. He then fills that cut-out center core with minced garlic and minced onion before coating the whole thing in olive oil. He prefers to bake it at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.  

“Not everyone agrees with me, but I like mine with some close to burned edges,” Oliver said with a laugh. “While there are carbs in cabbage, I’ve learned the high fiber content of it and some of its other profile, doesn’t make the impact on my body that say a white potato does.”  

Tomato basil soup and grilled cheese 

Oliver makes his rendition of vegan tomato basil soup by substituting cream for oat milk.  

“I use quality canned tomato paste and I season that to my taste, garlic, onion basil,” he said. “And then I do a grilled cheese on the side. Really, you could do any cheese but to make it vegan, the brand Ciao has an excellent vegan cheese.” 

Of course, this pairing can be made vegetarian by opting for the cream and using regular cheese. Oliver said his version of the recipe swaps out cream for unsweetened oat milk, which does still contain sugar but is void of much of the saturated fat found in cow’s milk.   

Oliver’s three tips for living a healthier life with diabetes 

  1. Avoid late-night carbs and dinners: “What I found is, (eating meals late) would dramatically raise my morning blood sugar levels,” Oliver said. Everyone’s schedule is different, but Oliver said laying off carbohydrate-rich snacks and big dinners past 7 p.m. has worked for him.  
  1. Beverages can be the enemy: “We all don’t realize that big morning latte is loaded with not just sugar but calories,” he said. “You don’t always realize you’re raising your blood sugar with those empty calories. That was a big one for me.”  
  1. Fruits are misunderstood; They’re an excellent snack: Though fruit has natural sugar, the fiber content helps slow digestion, which has a positive effect on a person’s blood sugar.

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Photo: Courtesy of Chris Oliver

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