On November 28th, most people in the United States, will take part in the great American tradition of Thanksgiving. It’s a time when we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, take stock of our blessings, and spend time with family and friends. At the very least for the financially capable, Thanksgiving is a no holds barred eating frenzy.
My family will enjoy many traditional favorites; turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce, collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, rutabagas, and giblet gravy. Of course dinner would not be complete without dessert. At our house, there will be at least three kinds of pie; sweet potato, apple, and pumpkin. All homemade, of course and ridiculously good.
Every year, my Mom asks, “What are we having for Thanksgiving dinner?” Each year the consensus is the same, with the younger generation chiming in “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” For them, it’s a chance to feast on all of the old-time favorites and a few new ones as well.
Changing traditions and taste buds is hard
In 2004, at my children’s request, I introduced pumpkin pie to the menu. Until then, it had never been part of our feast. My Dad, brother and nephew won’t even try any dessert made from vegetables other than sweet potatoes. We’ve gained one convert, my Mother.
In 2010, I started another ritual; bringing a salad of fresh mixed greens, tomatoes, English cucumbers, and red onion to this autumnal meal. So far I’m the only taker.
My Mother and I love each other, but we don’t cook in the same kitchen. While I credit her with encouraging our family to eat a wide variety of fruits, and vegetables, we often don’t agree on how to prepare them.
Whenever I ask why she puts sugar on vegetables, or why she never measures the sugar for ice tea or lemonade, my inquiries elicit glares that would put WWF fighters to shame. “I’ve been taking care of the family all these years, and a little sugar won’t kill you,” she would say.
“The sugar we get in the store has been cut,” and “It’s not the pure sugar we used to get back in the day,” she would reason.
Early sugar memories
Back in the day when my parents and elder relatives talk about their childhood, inevitably my Mom and the three remaining of her 13 siblings (all adult-onset diabetics) recall stories of walking through fields on their way home from school, stripping stalks of raw sugar cane and chewing them until the juice ran down their arms.
My early sugar memories are the sprinkle on top of my grandmother’s lemony teacakes, the clear syrupy mix over her soon-to-be fresh frozen peaches, or the delightful icy glaze as the fruit defrosted.
For my children it’s the grainy white residue at the bottom of their Grandma’s lemonade pitcher, watching the white cyclonic swirl in her freshly brewed iced tea, and the chewy goodness of gummy worms and bears.
The true meaning of “sugar”
Now when I think about it, it’s clear to see my family’s love of sugar spans the generations. One way or another for most African Americans, and southern Blacks in particular, sugar is BIG. It’s a term of endearment, an elemental condiment, and a source of pain and suffering. Oddly the amount of sugar is only sheepishly diminished when it refers to medical conditions. That’s when just a touch of sugar is sufficient to qualify as significant.
Diabetes, frequently called sugar diabetes, or “sugar” for short has lots of meanings for black folks. There’s a feeling of inevitability and defeat, an existence that robs life of enjoyment, and taste from your mouth.
Then there’s the recollection of the many relatives and friends plagued with “burning in the feet,” insulin pumps and injections, failing eyesight, and a dizzying schedule of doctor’s visits.
You try to forget, to cope with the despair of remembering the amputation of digits and limbs, and the growing number of younger victims. Last year my cousin, a husband and father of three lost his right leg due to complications of the disease. He’s 45 years old. Although it offers no comfort, he isn’t alone.
Diabetes in African Americans
Diabetes is the most frequent cause of leg amputations not resulting from accidents. Among people with diabetes, African-Americans are 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to suffer from lower limb amputations. (African American Community Health Advisory Committee)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet:
4.9 million or 18.7 percent of all non- Hispanic blacks age twenty and older have diagnosed and undiagnosed diabetes
If there is any good news it may be that in many cases of Type 2 diabetes, prevention and delaying onset is possible by adopting healthy lifestyle habits and paying attention to preventable related complications.
A study done by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that being overweight and obese was the single most important risk factor that predicted who would develop type 2 diabetes. The 16 year follow-up period study revealed that regular exercise– “at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week” — and an improved diet that’s low in fat and high in fiber significantly helped with type 2 diabetes prevention.
The bottom line: Type 2 diabetes is preventable with adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
The school’s website posts these 5 simple steps for lowering risks for Type 2 diabetes; you can check them out here.
This Connecticut Yankee with southern roots, is determined to challenge tradition, with the hope of prompting needed change. This year, once again, I’ll bring the fresh green salad, the turkey, macaroni and cheese and only one of each pie.
It’s all about moderation, knowing who’s at the table, acknowledging risks, and encouraging the adoption of healthy behaviors. This Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to do things a bit differently by enjoying myself in healthier ways. When offered, the customary second slice of pie, I’ll respond, “No sweetie, I’m taking a walk.”
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