• When Lucas Verhelst became a vegan in 2015, he learned to love food again. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
Type 1 diabetes didn't just affect Lucas Verhelst's body, it damaged his relationship with food - the substance that caused his blood sugar levels to soar. That all changed wh the 51-year-old became a vegan.
Lucas Verhelst, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

15 Jul 2020 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2020 - 12:23 PM

Both my parents came to Australia from Holland in the 1950s. So I grew up eating Dutch food.

Our typical family meal consisted of potatoes and onions, and then my mum added whatever ingredients she had to that to make it go further.

In the late 70s and early 80s, meat was expensive so we always ate the cheaper cuts: mince, gravy beef, pig knuckles, ox tail, tongue – basically anything that the butchers back then wanted to throw away. Pea soup was one of my mum’s favourite meals and she would use pig knuckles to thicken it.

But everything changed when I was around 20 years old and I started to get really sick. I lost about eight kilos and was so fatigued. It literally felt like I was dying. Then, just before my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

I feared food and didn’t want to experiment with what I ate. 

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease where your immune system mistakes the body’s own healthy cells for foreign invaders. You don’t produce insulin or only produce small amounts.

Prior to my diagnosis, my body had been starving. I had a blood glucose level of 33. Anything higher than 20 usually causes the body to go into a coma, so the doctors were quite amazed that I was still standing up.

I started injecting insulin immediately. As part of my treatment plan, I was put on a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. The idea was to get rid of all the sugar in my diet, but that basically made me worse.

Vegan butter chicken with lachha paratha (layered bread)

A vegan take on butter chicken - no butter, no chicken. It's made with soya nuggets and cashew nut cream. This is all about the sauce - the soya nuggets do a great job of absorbing the creamy sauce.

During the many years that followed, I got sicker. I became more fatigued and my sugar levels swung up and down all the time. Eventually, I saw a nutritionist and went on an elimination diet (in consultation with my GP) to work out what I could eat that wouldn’t make me feel so bad.

Over time, I learned that I couldn’t process fats very well, especially saturated fats. From 2000-2004, I ate low carb foods, lean meats like fish and low-fat dairy. My next diet lasted 10 years and featured wild meat that was very low in fat, zero fat dairy and a small amount of carbs. Then, in 2014, I eliminated all the fats and processed foods from my diet – including eggs and dairy – and I got a bit better. 

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease where your immune system mistakes the body’s own healthy cells for foreign invaders. You don’t produce insulin or only produce small amounts.

Why diabetes affected my relationship with food

I absolutely hated food. From 2014, all I was eating were steamed vegetables and four or five oysters a day which were very low in fat. I didn’t eat a whole lot of food outside of that because [every time I ate] my blood sugar levels would jump up too high and I had to inject insulin. My body would go into fight or flight and it became very traumatic.

I feared food and didn’t want to experiment with what I ate. For example, I knew I could have a quarter of a cup of rice and knew exactly how much insulin to inject for that quantity. So for over 20 years, I just stuck to what I knew was safe.

You may have to do more than eat well to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes
It's time to separate myth from fact and talk home truths about the practical things you can do to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.

There’s also a lot of stigma attached to being a diabetic, particularly if you’re older. Children with diabetes are looked upon with sympathy but once you start getting over 40 and have diabetes, people treat you like it’s your own fault. They say: ‘why don’t you just diet and eat less and exercise more?’ mistaking type 1 for type 2 diabetes. 

How veganism saved my diet

In 2015, I met my second wife who is a vegan. She saw my diet and said to me ‘why don’t you get rid of the oysters and eat tofu and tempeh?’ I’ve been fully vegan ever since.

Becoming a vegan expanded my food options incredibly. I was introduced to all of these new vegan foods that I didn’t know how to cook before because they weren’t part of my upbringing.

I started to eat legumes, nuts and seeds, and more fruit, vegetables and whole grains that were low in fat and anti-inflammatory. These foods stabilised my sugars. 

I now have mango spread instead of butter, use avocado for salad dressings, have oat milk instead of cow’s milk, and eat tofu and tempeh in all of their variations.

I know that the food I am eating is good for me. I am also aware it’s good for the planet and for the people around me.

Today, I am the healthiest version of myself my doctor has ever seen, physically and mentally. I am now on an incredibly low dose of slow-acting insulin and I don’t have to inject for meals.

As a vegan, I find it much easier to go out to eat or to functions. When they ask if I have any special dietary requirements I say 'yes I am vegan': it's a lot simpler than saying I'm a diabetic and explaining which type I am and what I can or can't eat.

I know that the vegan food I am eating is good for me. I am also aware it’s good for the planet and for the people around me.

The vegan lasagne here is so good it's inspired marriage proposals
Can a lasagne without cheese or meat actually be great? At Gardener's Lodge, the vegan version is one of the best you'll try – period.
Middle Eastern food meets veganism at Khamsa Cafe
Middle Eastern flavours and a plant-based philosophy strike culinary harmony at Newtown's Khamsa Cafe.
Heirloom carrots with rosemary balsamic demi-glace

A great way to serve these carrots is with Desiree Nielsen's aromatic sage-fried tofu. It's a creation that's simple enough for a midweek meal, and fancy enough for a vegan dinner party.  

Why this Argentinean chef quit his job to pursue a vegan career
Former executive chef at Urbane, Alejandro Cancino, hates the 'vegan' label that too often boxes people who chose to follow a plant-based diet. The award-winning chef tells SBS how he plans to redefine plant-based eating in Australia.
Sweet potato noodles in cheesy cashew sauce

Want to experience how flavourful and satisfying vegan and gluten-free friendly food can be? Try this colourful concoction. Start soaking the cashews the day before, then you can whip the dish up in under 15 minutes.  

Vegan doughnuts

If you know the Deli, these doughnuts don’t need any introduction. You know it, I know it; they are THE BEST. We have customers who won’t even go to the pastry case, but just come straight to the register and order their usual: coffee and a doughnut. I’ve tried asking them, ‘Don’t you want to know the flavour today?’ (We change them every day.) But they always reply with some variation of, ‘Nope, I know it’s going to be good, no matter what’. And no matter how wacky the flavours sometimes get, the customer is well and truly right – they’re always good. 

Vegan bolognese sauce

Perfectly made bolognese is right up there with freshly washed sheets, new socks or an unwatched season of a good new TV show. And the next best feeling to eating pasta with perfectly made bolognese is having a second batch in your fridge/freezer for another day. Make a double batch of this recipe and you can thank us later.

Should vegans avoid avocados and almonds?
Vegans might need to examine their politics when it comes time to order that smashed avo and almond milk latte.