"We're going to learn how to eat and not how to diet. That's the trick with diabetes.”
In this episode, we speak with Lauren Plunkett about her experience of living with type one diabetes and how she has learned to manage this condition as a dietitian. Lauren shares how her personal journey has influenced her professional work and how she leverages her unique perspective to assist others in managing their conditions. She also sheds light on how her condition impacts her role as a dietitian.
Lauren Plunkett RDN LD CDCES, specializes in nutrition and exercise for type 1 diabetes and plant-based nutrition for chronic disease and preventive health. She is a global health educator, public speaker, fitness instructor, and author of the award-winning book, Type One Determination. Lauren has lived with type 1 diabetes for nearly three decades as a fierce advocate for healthy lifestyle practices.
Shireen: In today’s episode, we are in conversation with Lauren Plunkett about her experience of living with type 1 diabetes and how she has learned to manage this condition as a dietitian. Lauren shares her personal journey, has influenced her professional work, and how she leverages her unique perspective to assist others in managing their condition. She also helps shed light on how her condition really impacts her role as a dietitian. Stay tuned.
Lauren Plunkett specializes in nutrition and exercise for type 1 diabetes and plant based nutrition for chronic disease and preventive health. She is a global health educator, public speaker, fitness instructor, and author of the award winning book, Type 1 Determination. Lauren has lived with type 1 diabetes for nearly three decades as a fierce advocate for healthy lifestyle practices. Welcome, Lauren.
Lauren: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today. We’ve got some great questions coming up.
Shireen: We sure do. And with that, Lauren, I want to start with a very important one, which is, can you share with us your own journey with diet and food prior to becoming a dietitian and how it changed once you became a dietitian living specifically with type 1 diabetes?
Lauren: Well, I became a dietitian because in a lot of ways I knew I needed to learn how to save myself. Things weren’t going great prior to me realizing I should really go back to school and start learning from the inside, in a sense, where I had that personal experience. I knew what I had lived with. I essentially grew up in the healthcare system being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11.
So, I was counting carbohydrates, reading labels, meeting with dietitians before I had hit puberty, which you can imagine, yeah, so my relationship with food was quite complicated and that is quite common for people with diabetes. Really, it’s a big topic of conversation that should be a bigger topic of conversation, but I didn’t realize how much it was in my heart to need to understand nutrition scientifically because I had already started tapping into some things with nutrition that were helping me a lot and they were not really the things that I had been taught growing up. So, becoming a dietitian, becoming an evidence based practitioner, and the learning of, of just how to read the science, how to find research that would make, that was making a big impact, that was really helping me, that’s what then helped me become the professional that I am today. And then how I wanted to practice helping people going forward.
Shireen: What an amazing journey to go through. And I’m sure at that time he didn’t feel as amazing, but now looking back, I mean, what, you know, what, what a ride to go through that. You know, before we dive more into tight one, I do want to take a minute to help our listeners understand a little bit more about what is type one versus type two, which is the more common diabetes. Can you just help us break that down a little bit?
Lauren: Type one diabetes is less than 10% of the global population of diabetes. So there are over 500 million of us on the planet with diabetes, and I’m not even talking about pre diabetes. So with type 1 diabetes, it is less common and it also is more commonly diagnosed in children and youth, but that average age is actually increasing at this point, and what it means is I no longer produce insulin. And insulin is this really important, I think of it as an Uber or a taxi, this important hormone that helps move blood glucose molecules to our cells so that we can use them for fuel. So you can imagine without insulin, your blood sugar is just going to go higher and higher and higher. These glucose molecules are gonna add up. And so I have to inject insulin because I don’t make any on my own and I can go on to live a great life, you know, by managing it this way.
But then type two diabetes people are still producing their own insulin, but not efficiently enough. So that’s where you’re going to find out there’s medications that come into play and nutrition is a big, big component of this. Really nutrition is everything when it comes to type two diabetes. And that may be another subject that I’m very passionate about.
But the great thing here is when you have type two diabetes, you are in a huge opportunity to learn how to work with your body and not against it. Really try to understand how can you help yourself live this healthy life so that we can reverse that resistance. It’s like that taxi is just constantly clogged in the traffic. That insulin taxi is constantly fighting through this traffic in the bloodstream to try to move those glucose molecules. And if we clear some of that resistance, we can reverse it, and we can really change some things in the course of someone’s experience with type 2 diabetes.
Shireen: That’s very interesting, and specifically how you distinguish that from type 1 versus, you know, versus type 2. Now, can you share with us a little bit more about your journey? You know, you mentioned being diagnosed at 11 years old. Can you recall how you really felt at that time, what it was being 11? Hearing this word, diabetes, the concerns for your family, the foods, and all the adaptations you had to make along the way, again, as an 11 year old, just trying to be a kid.
Lauren: Yeah, it’s a great question and the way that you phrase that too, because I closed that door. I closed that memory off for such a long time, and when I decided to write Type One Determination, I freaked out a couple times in the writing of that book. And what helped me finish it were the stories I was getting from other people with Type One that had, like, horror stories like I did and went through these awakenings of, you know, I went through these awakenings realizing I have to talk about this, particularly because I’m a dietician now I’ve walked on both sides of the curtain, so to speak. And then as a diabetes educator, learning more and then meeting more professionals that were urging me, talk about this stuff, tell your story, you have these experiences, get them out there.
And recalling, I had to recall these memories, so many of these memories while I was writing the book. So diagnosed 11, I was super sick. My dad describes it as I had sunken eyes. I was just this shadow of myself, you know, at 11, I was approaching, I was beginning to grow, you know, things are starting to change with my body.
I was starting to, my look was starting to change, but instead my parents see me fading into nothing, super, super sick. So in diabetic, did diabetic ketoacidosis in the state of metabolic meltdown. And that’s what happens when your body is essentially eating itself alive because it’s not getting the glucose to your cell to use it for fuel. Such an important process.
So that was really the, here we go, kid’s sick, take her in, diagnose with type one. And then you go into the learning. You begin to learn more about food. It is so easy within those first few days. And then moving into the weeks of your own management to develop a really tricky relationship with food because the word control comes up counting, measuring body weight. That became a big one. Essentially I was being judged by everything I did just to keep myself alive, but I was also called a non compliant and non adherent diabetic. Those are the three bad, horrible, judgmental cuss words in diabetes that should never, ever be used to describe someone’s existence.
You know, judged by your blood, the essence of life, like you really, it’s identifying self worth with numbers. That’s how it was growing up for me as a teenager. My self worth was my blood sugar. This is the mental health aspect of diabetes that you got to walk in the shoes of having type one to really understand how deep, the depth cellular depth, that gets into the emotions into the mental health, your physical health and how that’s all related in the way that we think about ourselves.
So that was my growing up and you can imagine how I had to change to survive this, to, you know, I talk about going back to school to learn how to save my own life. I knew what my experience was. I knew what I needed to grow out of, and I knew that I needed something to help me get out of that existence and really learn how to live.
Shireen: Thank you so much for, thank you so much for sharing that, Lauren. I mean, getting the labels, you mentioned non adherent, non compliant, diabetic, even having the weight of those words, you know, and, and even describing it to say the self worth is that number, right? Which is, which is running through your blood. It’s like, yeah, of course I can control that. So, can you, can you talk about really the impact of stress on your mental health, on managing chronic conditions again at that age, or at least starting at that age, you know, and then how did it go from there, but also starting at that age and how nutrition in particular plays a role in it.
Lauren: The nutrition that I live with today saved my life. But going backwards, I describe it as the hormonal apocalypse, just, you know, coping through these changes in your body and trying to, as a woman, and as, as a teenager, for me, trying to live a healthy lifestyle, but having to check in with the clinic every three months to have this evaluation of whether I was doing something right or wrong, I always thought I was doing something right, but my A1C certainly did not validate that from a clinical perspective.
It’s not just a matter of, oh, take your insulin and eat the way we’re telling you and everything’s going to go right. ‘Cause we’re not robots. It just doesn’t work that way. And that’s where there are these other things. I think as women in particular, we need to be aware of stress, there are other hormones in our system that affect blood sugar.
It’s just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing well, or healthy, or following protocols, as I’m quoting them as someone with diabetes, it means that there may be some stress here. There may be something in the cycle here that is causing blood sugar to elevate a bit. Your body thinks it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, but we don’t have that as type one, we don’t have that counter regulation to then lower blood sugar on command because we don’t make insulin. So there are things when it comes to intuitive awareness to understand about having type one diabetes, but also the element of forgiveness I think is enormous in type one and realizing that you’re not doing something wrong here.
This is your body. Physiologically doing something it thinks it’s supposed to, but what we have to do is look at are there certain times of the month where we need to manage our insulin differently? What do we need to know if when we look at our nutrition and the timing of our nutrition that could potentially really help us get through this?
And you can see how, as I’m moving my hands here, this cycle where it can impact mental health, anxiety, and stress while we’re blaming ourselves for something. Because we’re only looking at the numbers. It’s like we’re only ever focused on treating that one thing, which is blood sugar when we have to treat the whole system.
Emotional health, mental health. As women, we have to be so aware of what could be getting me today. And that’s where always managing stress, no matter who you are, having diabetes or not, breath work, yoga, get outside and walk for crying out loud. Get out there and breathe some clean, fresh air. Or even if it’s on a treadmill, listen to a comedy podcast, do whatever you’ve got to do to make yourself laugh and take you out of that moment.
There’s nothing like movement for blood sugar and it only takes a little bit, that bit of a walk, particularly after eating. So when it comes to nutrition, what really saved me was developing a healthier relationship with carbohydrates, knowing what carbs are and what they are not, identifying the healthy fiber rich carbohydrates from junk.
You know, cookies, cakes, candies, chips and stuff. I don’t call these carbohydrates whatsoever. I call it junk. It’s processed stuff that nobody needs in their body, but beans and lentils and sweet potatoes and greens and oats, I mean all the veggies, all the fruits. These are things that give us life. The color gives us life.
The vitamins and the minerals give us life. This is stuff I was afraid of just because they’re identified as carbohydrates. Oh, they’re going to make my blood sugar go up. Oh no. Are they good? Are they bad? And that’s also language that I needed to fix. So, knowing the carbohydrates are the solution and not the problem was key for me.
Shireen: And that is so interesting. And help us understand a little bit more about that, especially for folks who are listening, who either have diabetes themselves, have a loved one who is who is sort of navigating that for themselves. Help us understand sort of like, I feel like there’s this demonization of carbs. That’s this really in fashion. So help us understand a little bit more about that and how you differentiate sort of these good, healthy carbs.
Lauren: Yes, you know, unfortunately, it’s been in fashion for about 100 years since the diagnosis, excuse me, since the delivery, the administration of insulin, I do this presentation called a history of nutrition and diabetes and what we can learn from the past to nourish in the present and carbohydrates have been a in this, this realm of shame, it’s been just super incorrect for a really long time.
And what doesn’t help is every time a diet comes out and it gets pushed for its short term results, somehow that goes straight into the diabetes community. You know, what can we do to people with diabetes to restrict them further, to make them feel like objects of science even more? I mean, that’s how I always look at it.
And we’ve really missed something here. When I talk about treating the whole body, if so many things in the system can go wrong because. of potential complications of diabetes, then what we need to do is treat the whole system, not just one thing at a time. So the carbohydrate control stuff, this idea of complete restriction, if we just ask people and for listeners to reflect on this for a minute, if you’ve been dieting for most of your life, how has that been going for you?
‘Cause if you hate it and if your health isn’t exactly where you want it to go, then what we have to do is heal your relationship with carbohydrates because I’m willing to bet that that’s what you’ve been restricting, not the protein, not the fat. So we have to completely twist and turn this strategy and the dial to look at food from a different angle.
Simplify it. Also look at the culture of the foods that you’re used to that you maybe think are bad and they’re not bad. We’re gonna look at the fiber, we’re gonna look at how to nourish you, and when we do that, we start to reverse that resistance. So you can see how if you’ve been in this world of restriction, you’re eating lots of meat, lots of saturated fat, which is what you’re actually eating and ingesting with the meat and the cheese and the eggs, and you think that’s the solution to diabetes, but you still don’t have your health where you want it to be, then we have to go in the other direction.
We’re gonna learn how to eat and not how to diet. That’s the trick with diabetes.
Shireen: Speaking of learning not to diet, I want to explicitly even talk about this, which is specifically, you know, the question that is most often asked is, oh, what is a diet? I need to be on exactly what you’re saying. What is that diet that I need to be on? What do I need to follow? People are so, like, you know, I think part of it is also like instant gratification, like here’s the thing and it’s going to work and, you know, all these milestones would be achieved and everything will be rainbows and, you know, flowers. Do you, do you personally follow any specific regimen, doesn’t have to be a particular diet, but any specific regimen that you can tell our listeners about?
Lauren: I can speak for myself here. I can also speak to the research of this because it was an accident. When I changed, started to change my health, I went primarily plant based, meaning I stopped eating meat overnight just because I felt like, you know, I like my animals better alive. There was a bit of a moral idea to this.
But I also wanted to experiment and see what happened because I didn’t feel good eating these foods. And I had been taught growing up that the meats and the cheese and the eggs, they don’t have carbohydrates in them, so they’ve got to be fine. Right? Well, my A1C was in the double digits, so something wasn’t fine about this. Cause I was trying and I was trying and I was trying. And the more of those foods I ate, the more I craved sugar. It wasn’t making any sense. So I thought, what’s healthy? What makes sense? Let me just eat more greens. Let me buy some more salad mixes. Let me just make my plate a little more colorful.
And I had done a liquor research at this point. This was instinctive. I thought, I need to just eat healthier again. My mom, I had this kind of traditional household where mom made dinner every night and we always had that meat, starch, veggie idea. But I think that as I had gotten into my twenties, I didn’t have that veggie as much anymore.
So I brought that in four fold, really brought it in larger quantities and told myself don’t feel about it. The greens are good for you. And what was noticeable was I was eating more carbohydrates than I’d ever eaten in my whole life, but my blood sugar was going low all the time. I ended up going to the endocrinologist and it was just dropping my insulin constantly.
We were being really intensive at that point because something was going very well in my body, but I couldn’t identify what it was. Here’s the summary: I was eating way more fiber, way more nutrients, my vitamins and minerals, short chain fatty acids, some of the science that was happening cellularly, everything was connecting.
This is the efficiency that I’m talking about that we can do through nutrition. I was becoming a more efficient metabolic machine, and so my insulin needs just about dropped in half over the course of about a month. Remember, I don’t make any insulin. So in the process of my cells working better with what it, what it was getting, I was this, that inflammation factor, I could see it in my face. My body itself was starting to change and I knew, wow, something about the food here. It was not only what I was eating in abundance, because that’s important, it’s what I wasn’t getting that was making the biggest difference, but I was no longer putting the foods in that were making me feel sick, which was meat, a lot of dairy, and eggs. I didn’t do a lot of eggs to begin with. And so, but it was this cumulative amount when people really look at how much dairy they take in. It can be a lot. So many more. The portion size can be so much bigger than what they even think once they really sit down and look at it.
So I’ve been fully plant, 100% plant based for the better part of 13 years and I’ve gotten healthier every year with age, turned me into an indoor cycling instructor. I had more energy than I knew what to do with. So. I thought I was a study of one. I had no idea what this was back at that time. My doctor didn’t really know what was going on. The dieticians I talked to didn’t really know what was going on.
It was just, keep doing what you’re doing. And that was why I decided, okay, now it’s time to become a dietician and I really learned how did I just do this? Because I don’t know if I would be alive today, quite honestly, if I hadn’t. figured the food out. And the big part about that was it gave me purpose. It changed my mental health. It made me want to move more. I mean, it’s kind of all these pillars of a healthy lifestyle that nobody invented. It’s inside of all of us to have this healthier lifestyle and live a life of purpose or belief or spirit. I mean, all of these things started to connect for me and it helps me communicate with other people that way without having done this. I wouldn’t be able to feel so bright about this conversation with anyone that I encounter.
Shireen: And can you, can you help us also understand some of that? So what does that look like? Especially for folks who are, you know, who say, well, I’m not sure about plant based. I’m not sure if I can give up the meats and the cheeses, the dairy, all of that. Can you help us understand sort of how it would work for you and for someone who isn’t quite there or doesn’t quite know how they can bridge to that, can you help provide some guidance on that?
Lauren: For sure. Focus on what you’re not eating, just like I did. I didn’t know what would happen and the way that I like to introduce this to people is, you know, give me some idea of what you eat on a regular basis and there’s absolutely no judgment of this. If you’re eating donuts for breakfast, do not hide that from your dietitian. You know, we want to know what is your body been dealing with so that we can shine a light. I call them big blinking lights. We want to look for the big blinking lights of opportunity here. This isn’t about shame. This isn’t about what you, you know, people do at first absolutely slam themselves.
I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I eat so bad and I hear all of this. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s not going to help. Just stare it in the face. If you think that you’re not super proud about your nutrition, we’re going to stare it in the face and we’re going to figure this out because the only way that we are going to go, when people work with me, I’m kind of like, we are going to get somewhere positive here no matter what. If I’m going to hear right away how sad and body shaming people are with themselves, the positive side of that is we are never going to do that again. We are now going to use the nutrition. We’re going to eat to treat. We’re going to get somewhere positive through this way of eating. So we look at, well, okay, here’s what we’re working with. Here is how you’ve been eating because you thought this worked.
But I’m hearing you say that you have goals to get to this point. You want to get healthier. You want to lower your cholesterol. You want to lose a little bit of weight. You want to be more active. A big one I hear for people is I want to spend more time with my grandkids. Somehow grandkids really jolt people into realizing that they want to live longer and they want to live well, you know, that’s some things I also have people telling me I want to run a marathon. I want to be an athlete and I get super excited about that because it’s the combination of a nutrition for type 1 diabetes with performance nutrition is such an awesome combination. When you understand insulin resistance and then sensitivity through nutrition, you create that metabolic machine. I talked about it helps people become more athletic. It’s just the nature of the human body. It can move easier that way. So you can see how painting this picture of let’s get excited about something. Let’s look forward to the changes that can happen in your body.
And we’re going to talk about the plants that you’re willing to start adding in. And more often than not, I hear people saying, well, I thought I couldn’t eat fruit like that. I thought that I couldn’t eat the potatoes. I thought that I couldn’t get it again. And I get fired up because I say, Who told you that? Who told you you couldn’t do this because that person needs to check. We need to check in with our healthcare practitioners on that type of advice.
Nutrition is such a powerful tool that if we teach this forward in a motivating, optimistic manner, we can, I’m convinced we can completely change global health. We just have to change our communication. We have to change the language around carbohydrates. And people start to believe in themselves again. Just like I had done. I was in the dumps. I needed to figure something out, and it was intuitive for me, but we focus on what you’re not getting, and naturally what I see happen is people start to realize, as well, I can eat less meat, it’s not a problem. I’m having eggs every other day instead of every single day. I don’t really miss milk, you know?
And so there’s a balancing that happens first. And the beautiful thing is, if you then have blood work done, or you’re wearing a continuous glucose monitor, which I can’t, I can’t speak more highly of continuous glucose monitors, people will have proof very quickly that the nutrition is working. So it ends up being a catalyst towards, wow, what else can I do with my nutrition? And that’s where it gets really exciting.
Shireen: I’ve sort of loved that way of being able to quickly look at that data and say, huh, like I didn’t, I learned something new. You know, in the last few minutes here, what I do want to cover with you is, you know, sharing your own perspective and I was also thinking about when you talked about, you know, your 11 year old self as well, what would you say to a parent again, caregiver, someone who has someone in their life who has type one diabetes. What would you tell them in working with or trying to understand what type one diabetes means for that person?
Lauren: Are you thinking like, if someone is working with, if someone in their family is pre diagnosed?
Shireen: Who has type 1 diabetes, that’s correct.
Lauren: The first thing that just came to mind is attitude is everything. I say that all the time. Our perception of what life with diabetes is or can look like is very important. What we want to do, and this actually reaches out to health care practitioners, but parents and the family that is surrounding that person is that when someone in the family is diagnosed with type one diabetes, everyone is, everyone is diagnosed with type one, it’s time to learn a little bit more about diabetes in general, because there are worse things than being diagnosed with a disease where you’re being told to live a healthy lifestyle. So that healthy lifestyle extends to everyone who’s doing the grocery shopping, the restaurants we choose, the habits of grocery shopping, how often we’re doing it, cooking in the household, and it doesn’t need to be this grand upheaval to change everything and to take cooking classes.
It doesn’t have to be that. We start wherever that person and family is to simplify the approach as we understand what really helps to heal type one diabetes, not cure, but heal. Healing is always what we’re looking at with diabetes and with healthcare practitioners in particular, and also with parents is that language that we use.
So coming back to words like diabetic. I don’t like being called diabetic, and I don’t think anyone should be called a disease. I have a disease. I’m a lot of things. But I’m not diabetic. I have diabetes, and I own it. So you can imagine how this can get into a child’s head. If you tell them, yeah, you have diabetes, but you’re gonna still try out for baseball. You’re gonna still try out for the soccer team. We’re still gonna go on our trip.
And the consistent empowerment of you’re going to do what you set out to do. And diabetes can actually help you be even stronger, more knowledgeable, and more insightful about your body. To a kid, that probably doesn’t mean anything yet, but as we get older, we start to understand those things. And that’s the language that I really ask of healthcare practitioners as well, is to use the optimistic language of what you can be with diabetes and not what you can’t.
Shireen: Oh my gosh. I love that. Just as I got chills, by the way. With that, Lauren, I can’t thank you enough for doing this episode with us at this point. I would love for our listeners to know how they can connect with you and then just learn more about your work.
Lauren: Sure. I just had my website uplifted and it’s all fancy and it’s got new pictures and everything now and it’s simple to find. It’s laurenplunkett. com. So just my name dot com and you can read all these things, there’s all sorts of stuff on there. My book is on there. I’m adding more offers all the time. I wake up in the morning, I think, with a hundred ideas and see how many left by the end of the day. You know, to try to come up with new resources there.
@LaurenPlunkettHealth is where people can find me on social. You’re going to see a lot of cat pictures and goofy stuff with me on Instagram. That’s just really who I am by nature. But my website is going to give you more ideas of who I am professionally. And then one of my favorite things to do is travel and to speak and present and getting out to many clinics and conferences as I can. So that’s another way to find me.
Shireen: Lovely. Lovely. And we link up everything in our show notes. Lauren, thank you so very much for your time and to our listeners, thank you for hanging with us here today. Head over to our Facebook, our Instagram. And share with us your story. If you or a loved one has gone through this difficult process of being diagnosed with type one diabetes and then managing type one diabetes, how did you navigate that? How did you navigate that together as a family and sort of figure out how exactly to manage type one diabetes?
Again, head over to our Facebook, Instagram, you’ll find us at Yumlish. Again, it is all tagged below this post. You can find us on Facebook, on Instagram to comment on this very simple question: If you have gone through this journey of type one diabetes for yourself, for a loved one, how did you navigate that for yourself?
Let’s begin the conversation there. We will see you from this episode on our Facebook and our Instagram social media. Thank you again, Lauren, for your time.
Lauren: Thank you. Bye everybody.