Vickie De Beer knew something was wrong when her normally energetic eight-year-old son Lucca began to struggle to wake in the mornings, and came back from an annual camping trip with his dad Joe and two brothers looking unusually exhausted.
Although her husband and three sons often returned pleasantly tired from a few days in the wilderness, this was different. Lucca was wiped out, his breath was “sickly sweet” and he’d been asking for far more cold drinks than usual.
At first, De Beer - a food writer, chef and stylist who lives in South Africa - thought Lucca might have a throat infection.
But an appointment with their doctor the next day, and a round of blood tests, revealed her son actually had Type 1 diabetes - the form of diabetes which occurs when cells responsible for producing insulin in the body are destroyed. Unlike Type 2, it is not linked with lifestyle or weight, and tends to first appear during childhood or younger years - and the diagnosis meant Lucca would have to manage the condition for life with insulin injections.
“I was so petrified when they released Lucca from hospital and wished they would keep him there a little bit longer,” De Beer recalls. “I was so worried we would make a potentially life-threatening mistake when injecting him with insulin.”
Family mealtimes also needed to be adjusted.
“From the moment Lucca was diagnosed, we decided that we would deal with his diabetes as a family unit,” explains De Beer. “This was not only Lucca’s problem. We changed the way the whole family ate.”
On the advice of medics, the family stuck to a wholegrain, low GI (glycemic index) diet, keeping a close check on carbohydrate counts, to ensure Lucca’s blood sugars were stable, and managed his insulin dosage. But De Beer still had concerns about their meals.
“I always felt we weren’t managing his blood sugars to the best of our ability. Although his three-monthly blood sugar blood tests were always stable, we couldn’t bring the extreme fluctuations under control.”
Drawing on her food background, De Beer set about creating a low-carb plan in an attempt to help, meaning instead of starchy ‘white’ foods like pasta, rice, bread, cakes and biscuits, they eat fibrous green vegetables, like courgette noodles, green beans and long stem broccoli.
“Not only were his blood sugars more stable, without the extreme fluctuations, but he also had more energy and far less anxiety,” explains the writer.
Now, De Beer has teamed up with dietitian Kath Megaw, refining the recipes in a new cookbook.
The Diabetes Cookbook: Low Carb Recipes For The Whole Family is packed with practical advice for people living with the condition, as well as plenty of personal anecdotes and family-friendly recipes.
De Beer says the family have come a long way since Lucca’s diagnosis six years ago and, now 14, he’s “doing great”.
“His blood sugar is under control even though he is going through puberty, which normally really messes with teenagers,” she adds. “Diabetes changes your life quite significantly. Everything must be planned very well, whether it’s a school outing or a sleepover.
“Lucca must always have his insulin and testing kit with him and access to food, in case he has low blood sugar. In the beginning, even the smallest outing was wrought with stress, but slowly and surely it becomes your new normal, and you can go out to a restaurant or party without fretting.
“Our new low-carb diet has really improved the fluctuating sugars a lot, and with it, our quality of life.”