Diabetes-Fighting Secrets from a Former Fat Chef

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on July 3, 2013
Elizabeth Mwanga was on the Food Network's Chopped.

In 2007, Elizabeth Mwanga, 36, was found unconscious on the couch of her Manhattan apartment. She was rushed to the hospital, where tests revealed that her blood sugar levels had skyrocketed to 1000 mg/dL—nearly 10 times the normal range. At this level, Elizabeth risked not only a diabetic coma, but also possible death.

That day, Elizabeth was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after doctors determined she had been experiencing what is known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), an acute, potentially life-threatening complication that occurs in patients with Type 1 diabetes. In the months prior, she had turned to sugary treats and alcohol as a way of coping with a bad breakup. But the medical crisis showed Elizabeth, who was morbidly obese at 201 lbs and 5’1, that she needed a lifestyle makeover—and fast. “In the hospital, I made a conscious decision to eat healthier, lose weight and manage my condition better,” she recalls. “It wasn’t driven by vanity. It wasn’t driven by, ‘Oh, I want to look fabulous in a bikini.’ It was driven by the fact that I needed to make these changes in order to live.”

Doctors told Elizabeth she would be on insulin for the rest of her life, but she was determined to prove them wrong.

“I set a goal for myself,” Elizabeth says. “I wanted to reduce my insulin dosage from four times to a day to only once a day, and I wanted to lose between 50 and 75 pounds. My doctors said I was too ambitious, but I’m a really determined person. When I do things, I do them 1,000 percent.”

Determined to succeed, Elizabeth consulted a nutritionist, who helped her devise a nutritious diabetes-friendly meal plan. But it wasn’t until she learned how to cook that Elizabeth discovered her true weight loss salvation. “Prior to my diabetes diagnosis, I didn’t know how to cook,” she says. “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers go out to eat—that’s just what we do. So I started watching the Food Network and reading cookbooks, and I taught myself how to cook.”

Trading in fast food for home-cooked meals rich in fruits and vegetables, Elizabeth watched the pounds melt off. Soon, she began adding exercise to her regimen, and the number on the scale continued to plummet—within 19 months, she had shed 100 pounds, dropping from a size 22 to a svelte 2. She also gradually weaned herself off insulin and has been medication-free since 2009.

As she became more and more comfortable in the kitchen, Elizabeth discovered ways to create lively, inspired dishes with low calorie counts. For example, to slash fat without sacrificing flavor, Elizabeth recommends adding fresh herbs to meals whenever possible. “I use a lot of cilantro, oregano, parsley,” she says. “I also use garlic and onion—they add a lot of flavor for basically no calories.”

Hoping to inspire others to take control of their health and diabetes, Elizabeth launched Winning Diabetics™ in 2011, an online resource for diabetics that features a wealth of diabetes management tips and recipes. “It’s been a very interesting journey with my health. I feel fortunate—I do not feel lucky. All of this has been a result of my hard work. But you know what? Everybody can do what I did.”

Competing on Chopped—the popular Food Network reality-based cooking competition in which four chefs are forced to make a three-course meal using a basket of mystery ingredients—offered Elizabeth a unique opportunity to share her inspiring story with a broader audience. As soon as Elizabeth heard that the Food Network was seeking contestants for a special weight-loss edition of Chopped, her interest was immediately piqued. “I knew it was right up my alley. I am a healthy food chef. An award-winning healthy food chef, at that. And I’ve always wanted to be on the Food Network,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth sent in an application and was chosen to compete on the reality show. In the “Cook Your Butt Off” episode, which aired May 30th on the Food Network, Elizabeth went head-to-head against three other chefs, all with incredible weight loss stories of their own to share. Although she was eliminated in the first round—judges complained that the melon in her seared duck dish was inedible—Elizabeth says she has no regrets about her experience on the show.

“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to have been on the Food Network. I stayed true to my culinary perspective—I made something that was healthy and tasted delicious to me, and I’m proud of that,” Elizabeth says. “And I think it’s great that a lot of people were able to hear my story and see my weight loss journey. It’s expanded my reach so much. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

An advocate for the use of healthy, unprocessed foods to naturally heal diabetes, Elizabeth believes that anybody has the power to transform their health. “I am here today as a living example that if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything,” she says. Below are Elizabeth’s top diabetes management tips:

1. Check blood sugar at least three times a day. “It’s the single most important thing you can do,” Elizabeth says. “Checking your blood sugar is the best way to gauge your health and your diabetes.” 

2. Eliminate refined sugar. “A lot of the canned and processed foods that we eat contain refined sugars—ketchup, salad dressing, sausage.” Elizabeth also advises cutting down on refined carbohydrates (white bread, rice, etc) whenever possible. “These tend to spike blood sugar levels almost as much as refined sugars.”

3. Read food labels. “A lot of people read food labels and simply look at the calorie content, but really you should be focusing on the ingredients. Be aware of foods that contain refined sugars and refined carbs. Eat lots of whole, unprocessed fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts.”