The hedonist in me

I love food. I love the different textures, aromas, flavors, tastes and presentations of food. Food is sensual, seductive, warming, comforting and satisfying. It is a source of enormous pleasure. Thus, it saddens me to hear people say that to them food is just fuel.

I am a gourmand. By gourmand, I mean someone who enjoys eating and drinking, and appreciates good food and good wine, without the pretense and elitism that I associate with a gourmet or a foodie. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I’m a gastronomic hedonist, maybe not in a philosophical sense, but in a real, day-to-day dining and imbibing sense. My love for food is matched only by my love for wine and spirits. I’m not talking about overpriced dishes in expensive restaurants. Good food does not have to be high-priced, and inexpensive dishes do not have to rotate only among three tastes (bland, too sweet or too salty). I’ve had excellent meals in fine restaurants as well as in rundown dim sum houses, makeshift street-side eateries, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and people’s homes. I love to try new places, new recipes and new dishes. I don’t just eat to live, I live to eat.

Appreciation of food came late to me. I’m from a country the cuisine of which, despite having Spanish, American, Chinese and Southeast Asian influences, is sadly eclipsed by the spicy, exciting and visually pleasing cuisines of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Although my mother made sure her children had fresh meat, fish and produce, I did not grow up on exceptional cooking. It was after I moved to Tokyo, at the age of 31, that I came to discover and fully appreciate the pleasures of good food. I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do, and tried my best to make up for lost time.

Just in case you are speculating that I became obese with all this good eating, it was in fact the other way around. Before I took up food appreciation as a serious pursuit, my life revolved around work, and the pressures of building a career steered me towards junk food, soda and rice, noodles and pasta. At that time, food was indeed no more than fuel to me. Naturally, my weight started piling up. But, when I started eating for the sheer pleasure of it, I lost weight (at the same time, I quit smoking and returned to running). I found that really good, fresh, whole food does not have to be eaten in heaps to be satisfying and filling, is best eaten slowly and is definitely best when shared with good and equally appreciative company. Not only did I lose weight, I was also enjoying myself immensely.

Thus, I was devastated, depressed and angry, when, a few years later, my doctor diagnosed me with Type 2 diabetes. I researched and visited online diabetes boards and forums to learn about my condition and how to live with it. A few months after my diagnosis and research, I became convinced that I had to adopt the diet that everyone promised will save me from becoming blind, hooked to a dialysis machine and legless, and from taking medication for the rest of my life. That also meant turning my back on many types of food and dishes. My blood glucose numbers were to die for, and my A1c even plunged below 5% a couple of times. But instead of rejoicing, I was extremely unhappy.

This diet is boring and restrictive. I feel deprived.

I’m sluggish and always sick. I’m no longer enjoying running and socializing. Where’s the boundless energy that everyone on this diet is talking about?

I have lost my appetite. I don’t enjoy food and eating anymore.

I can’t stop thinking about food and eating. 

I’m turning into a cantankerous food cop. I detest people who can eat anything they want.

Heck, that fake low-carb margarita mix looks tempting.

After more than half a year of trying to make this diet work for me, I had enough. Although that diet was effective for many people (especially diabetics), it was clearly not the diet for me. I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way. The question I should have been asking was not “what do I eat” but “how do I want to live and die,” and the latter question leads to the bigger question of “who and what am I.”

I’m a hedonist and a diabetic. I cannot choose between them, and neither takes precedence over the other. I am a gastronomic hedonist to the core. Eating and drinking well are a big part of me. I draw immense pleasure from them. At the same time, I am also diabetic and there is no use denying it. I know that I need to find a way of eating while minimizing the risk of complications. But I do not have to allow the fear and paranoia of diabetes complications to hang over my head like the Sword of Damocles and run my life. Yes, the risk of complications is real, but I cannot spend my days as if I were already afflicted with these complications. What was it that Benjamin Franklin said? “Many people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.” I have no desire to live that way.

Instead of ditching certain foods, I experimented with portion control, timing and food combinations. Exercise became an even more important part of my life. I have accepted that I would need medication, and that being medication-free was not the right goal for me to begin with. My A1c, though still in the 5% range, will never dip to 4%, but that’s ok. It has taken a lot of experimentation, testing and introspection to find that delicate balance between an acceptable BG level and my love for eating and drinking, and this is and will be an ongoing process. But that is all right, because I regained my energy, my interest and zest for life, and my old self back. I was happy again.

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