In his 17-year career as a professional chef, Dan M. was used to high pressure. Working seven-day weeks, and even 22-hour days, was par for the course—and he was known for his speedy knife skills. But when he was sidelined in 2000 with a workplace injury, the stresses began to mount. Unable to use his right arm (the one that had always held his knife), he wondered how he would provide for his wife and 1-year-old son; a year later, another son was born. In the meantime, he was diagnosed with Regional Stress Disorder, requiring several surgeries, including the insertion of a titanium rod in his right arm. “I was in a lot of pain and taking all kinds of medications,” he remembers.
Throughout this stressful period, Dan turned to his one reliable source for comfort: food, in ample portions. “Fried foods, fast foods, and just big amounts of everything,” he recalls. “I’d go to a restaurant and have three slices of pizza, then an order of wings.” Soon, his weight rose to 235 pounds, on a 5-foot-8-inch frame.
Then, on New Year’s Day 2002, Dan’s wife announced she was filing for divorce. In February, he found out he had type 2 diabetes. That double-punch, however, turned out to be a turning point.
“It was my wake-up call,” says Dan. “My diabetes was definitely triggered by the stress in my life, but I couldn’t turn to food to help me anymore, because it was the problem. I had to embrace a healthier way of eating.” Working with a dietitian, he began what he calls a “relearning” process. “I had to learn how to eat just until I was comfortable and satisfied, but not full. I learned I could eat things in moderation.” And, though limited by his injuries in his ability to exercise, Dan also began regular workouts with an occupational therapist to restore his muscular and cardiovascular fitness. Today, he is closing in on his weight goal of 180 pounds and, at least for now, has been able to stop taking metformin.
Dan’s outlook has changed, too. Instead of feeling frustrated that he can no longer do the lightning-fast slicing and dicing that used to be his trademark, he has refocused his creative energies on advising other chefs. “I help them create the highest-quality, healthier versions of their recipes,” he explains. Whether he’s grinding portobello mushrooms to give “meaty” richness to marinara sauce, or pureeing a microwaved apple to moisten a peerless banana bread, he summons his many years in restaurant kitchens as well as his experience as someone with diabetes.
Dan also relishes his role as custodial parent of his two young boys, who benefit from their dad’s nutrition and culinary expertise. They’re also learning a powerful life lesson from someone who didn’t let diabetes stop him from doing the work he loves. “With diabetes, you’re only limited by your imagination,” says Dan. “You don’t have to give up on your goals, you just have to take charge.”