In my search for diabetic-friendly restaurants in NYC, I came across a website for an organization called “Diatize”, which seeks to give people who either have diabetes or are obese access to affordable healthy foods and exercise facilities. Well you guys know me- I was immediately intrigued! I reached out and had the opportunity to interview the founder of Diatize, Dennis Sheehan, who is himself a Type 2 diabetic. Little did I know that Dennis is also a professionally-trained chef living in East Harlem! Dennis shares his personal story of being diagnosed with diabetes, his path to managing the disease by eating healthier & working out and how he hopes Diatize will help others like him. Read on for a truly inspirational story!
1. Tell us about yourself!
I am a 42 yr old, Type 2 diabetic living in East Harlem. I am a trained chef and graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in 1990. I have worked in kitchens from Florida to Wyoming to NYC. I have a 15-yr old son Matthew and I’m deeply in love with my girlfriend and inspiration, Reverie Santos (pictured above). We have two dogs, Reese and Pepper. I love to eat and I love to cook. I love to jog and just took up golf (it’s sooo addicting!) I read many exercise magazines and I’m learning more and more everyday about my body and how it responds to exercise.
2. What is your health story?
In December of 2007 I suffered a mild heart attack and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. My blood sugar was 555 mg/dL (a normal blood sugar range is ~70-130 mg/dL). My doctor asked me: “How are you even alive right now?”
I was then given a copy of a diet from 1955 that suggested a snack should be 1.5 of a Lorna Dune cookie! I told the doctor: “If I could eat just 1.5 of a Lorna Dune cookie and stop, I wouldn’t be here!” I didn’t have health insurance when I was diagnosed and was overwhelmed at the money I needed for a blood glucose monitor, strips and lancets. I was depressed for the next six months. I would cry at night and I threw myself one hell of a pity party. I weighed 285 lbs and went to the gym and was so embarrassed that I stayed away for a while.
Then I started to think about fighting this disease and how I wanted to live a long life. I wanted to make a change in my life. Rev, my girlfriend, would tell me “You are a chef. Go create foods that are healthy and tasty.” So I did. I cut out all the “whites”. White flour, white bread, pasta, sugars, sweets etc. Eating my veggies, I used fresh herbs and made different pestos, which really added flavor. My healthy meals became more tasty and I wanted to eat them.
I started going to the gym, not caring how I looked to others because I had to save my life. I started running and lifting weights. I ran a 5K race (couldn’t believe I did it!). I was running on air for the first 2 kilometers. Then came the hills and I was going to walk, but I knew Rev was waiting for me at the finish line so I kept running. When I saw her there and I crossed, I hugged her so tight and just cried…it was one of the most emotional and gratifying moments in my life.
I am now down to 214 lbs and controlling my blood glucose through exercise and healthy eating.
3. Wow, congratulations! So tell us about Diatize. How does it differ from other diabetic-friendly meal options?
Diatize is a non-profit that offers culinary advice and meals geared toward Type 2 diabetics and those wanting to eat healthier. The difference between us and other diabetic-friendly meal options, is that we are cost-effective, tastier and more realistic; meaning real portion sizes, real flavors and food that’s cooked with love and passion. Eventually we hope to have an online order and delivery system for all. We need to get authorized by the FDA to accept WIC and SNAP (food stamps) so that customers at all income levels can buy our products.
4. What is your main goal in creating Diatize?
Our dream is to have an all around wellness center in lower-income areas. We want to have an exercise center geared towards people who are overweight and making it comfortable and fun so they keep coming back. We want to have the online ordering of food and also a sit-down restaurant so they could order the food, workout and then pick up the food for the day. We think that having a support group is paramount in helping others. I wish I had someone to help me and talk to in those first six months after being diagnosed with diabetes. We will have group discussions and peer groups to support each other. I know it seems very ambitious but we will get it done! We will have cooking demos and have “Iron Chef ” type competitions with prizes for the winner. We also want to have a TV show where we DIATIZE someones kitchen!
5. You’re located in East Harlem. Are there any specific challenges that you think people who live in Harlem face when it comes to healthy eating? Diabetic-friendly eating?
I go to a supermarket in East Harlem and the produce variety and freshness sucks, if you go a couple blocks downtown where people who make more money live, you can get whatever you like and you better believe it is the best quality. Why the disparity? You tell me. It’s all about money. Walk down 3rd Ave along East 101-105 Streets and it’s McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Dunkin Donuts (Taco Bell is also coming). If you are a single mom or parent, making $28,000/year and you get off work, what are you going to buy for dinner? In that situation, a 20 piece Chicken McNugget Meal for $4.99 makes sense. That has to change and it will. Fruit and veggie stands are also poorly setup and all the produce is old. We have to have people change the way they think about food. We need to make eating a “family act” and get involved.
6. What can we expect next from Diatize?
We have put a temporary halt on operations for a short while. We are focusing on winning a proposal for a location in the Bronx. It is perfect for Diatize and should be the launching pad for many more Diatize locations to come. Please check out our website for more details: www.diatize.com.
7. Anything else you’d like to add?
Diatize: changing the world one meal at a time.
* Have you heard of Diatize? What did you think of Dennis’ inspiring story and Diatize’s mission? * -CFC