When I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, it included a primer on life in Ukraine, with general information on history, geography, transportation, culture and a small section on food. It should come as no surprise to other PWD, but I have a sometimes wonderful and sometimes dangerous relationship with food. The information shared they’re heavy on meat and vegetables, with seasonal access to produce, and the majority of grocery shopping is done in open air bazaars and small shops. This was helpful, but didn’t minimize my anxiety when it came to carbohydrate counting or questions about glucose tab availability.
I was moving to a place that has an entirely different relationship with the food supply than we do in the US, and I was armed with nothing more than what I knew from diabetes camp education classes, a college-level nutrition course, and a young person’s memories of trial and error. My biggest fears were less about access to medicine and more about the on the ground realities of day-to-day diabetes management. In America, we eat differently than many other cultures. I drive more often than I bike or walk to get places. I use the Internet to figure out a lot of T1D related issues. I knew those facts about my disease management would change, but I didn’t know how.
Looking back, I wish I could tell my younger self to simmer. To embrace change, to loosen my grip on control. Because honestly, everything was fine. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. My diet changed drastically and swiftly once I arrived in Ukraine and there were many times after a miscalculated bolus, a forgotten bolus, or an unexpected high or low I when I struggled with the usual array of emotions (fear, anger, frustration, etc.) But I started trusting myself and accepted that asking questions about food was just a part of my life. It will never stop being an insane amount of work, but the strength I felt after accurately estimating a bolus without the benefit of a nutrition facts panel was liberating.
Self: How big is that pile of boiled new potatoes on my plate? Hmm, looks like two fist-sized piles! How many of those will I have tonight? Is that compote over there?! Which type of fruit did Ira use? How much sugar did Lesya put in when she made it? How many ounces do I think is in this glass?
[Commences bolus calculations, continues living like a boss.]
This was a huge milestone for my T1D management. I started enjoying food and knowing how it would impact me both physically and emotionally, rather than resenting having to manage my body’s response to it because of a disease. Which, as you can imagine, improved my ability to manage my body’s response to it. The table – cooking, eating, and drinking – is a huge part of Ukrainian culture, especially for women. Experiencing a disease in which food is so important in a culture where it is revered changed my life. I’ve included some anecdotal memories and takeaways below for your enjoyment.
- The charades that result from eating something you cannot identify by sight while also not having the language skills to simply ask what you’re eating is highly entertaining. I will never forget the first time I ate rabbit liver.
- Before I lived in Ukraine, I was afraid of real sugar and what it might do to my glucose levels. I also had an aversion to what I thought of as a “waste” of insulin. Drinking tea with my colleagues in between classes cured me of both that affliction and that idiotic notion.
- Eating fruit in season will always remain one of the most delicious experiences of my existence. I’ve purchased more half-liter bottles of berries from a grandma on a corner than I’ll ever be able to remember, and I’m not upset about it.
- Often, when I didn’t have exact change at my local shop, I’d be given small candies instead of coins. These served as the ultimate low blood sugar fix. Glucose tab availability concerns resolved!
Ukraine taught me that Cheeto’s Puffs are not the only thing you can have too many of in one sitting. I once ate about six beets in an evening (Ukraine also turned me into something of a beet fiend), and I couldn’t eat them for about three months afterwards. Everything in moderation, people.