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VOL. 127 | NO. 31 | Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Diabetes Brings Caution, Awareness for Ciao Bella Chef

By Aisling Maki

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Whether it’s cannelloni, pizza or a decadent chocolate cake, Jonathan Steenerson, executive chef at Ciao Bella Italian Grill, is accustomed to whipping up meals that make customers’ mouths water.

But he’s changing up the menu a bit, finding healthier ways to create classic Italian dishes for diners with dietary restrictions. Ciao Bella now offers diabetic-friendly, heart-friendly, gluten-free and vegan fare.

“There’s no reason that we can’t offer something for everybody to enjoy,” Steenerson said.

In June, Steenerson spent more than three weeks in the hospital suffering from symptoms that later revealed he was pre-diabetic.

“It was the second time I’d been hospitalized for a mysterious disease,” he said. “It started with abdominal cramps and basically just not feeling good whatsoever.”

After being released from the hospital, Steenerson began to re-evaluate his dietary habits, cutting out alcohol, carbohydrates and sugars – not something easily achieved in an Italian restaurant.

“People in our business love to eat, we love to drink, and we love to have a good time,” he said. “And we do most of those things when we get off work at midnight. My regimen isn’t exactly like everyone else’s.”

“There’s no reason that we can’t offer something
for everybody to enjoy.”

–Jonathan Steenerson
Executive chef, Ciao Bella Italian Grill

Steenerson at one time worked at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, which he said was one of the first large, chain restaurants to offer healthier versions of some of its popular dishes.

He began experimenting with low-carb, low-fat and meatless versions of some Ciao Bella favorites and comfort foods, much to customers’ delight.

“I think it’s a breath of fresh air when customers can come to a decent restaurant and have a good meal with their significant other and enjoy that without having to compromise,” Steenerson said.

He recently prepared gluten-free pizza for a woman with Celiac disease – also known as gluten intolerance – who said it was the first time she’s enjoyed gourmet pizza in nearly a decade.

Steenerson, who’s currently working on Ciao Bella’s spring menu, is also sourcing fresher, local meats and produce.

“My goal by this time next year is to have 75 percent of my produce coming from within 150 miles, and right now, given the week, it’s about 30 to 45 percent local and organic,” he said.

And he says he can not only taste, but also feel the difference since he’s altered his diet.

“I look at those labels now; I look at what I’m putting into my body,” he said. “Now that I’ve cut that stuff out, when I do digest it, I can tell what it’s doing to my body. It’s been a learning process.”

Diabetes is a growing public health concern, especially in Shelby County, where the diabetes rate is 11.5 percent.

More than 20.8 million Americans have this complex disease, whose complications can include heart disease, eye disorders, kidney disease, nerve damage and lower-leg amputation.

Diabetes requires a lifetime of treatment, and daily self-management includes making healthy food choices, staying physically active, monitoring blood sugar and taking prescription medications.

Charlotte Cavin, manager of the Diabetes Education Center at Baptist Rehabilitation-Germantown, helps Type II pre-diabetics like Steenerson change their lifestyles to incorporate increased exercise and changes in eating habits.

About 80 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes are overweight, and Cavin said she focuses not only on glucose levels, but on reducing cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

She has worked with other restaurant owners whose own health challenges have prompted them to offer healthier alternatives for their customers.

Cavin says that, when dining out, people with diabetes and pre-diabetes should choose food with more fiber, which slows sugar from entering the bloodstream as quickly.

She also said diners should become accustomed to measuring their own food at home so they’re able to estimate appropriate serving sizes when dining out.

“There are so many restaurants where the portions are just too big,” Cavin said. “As soon as your food comes, you can just go ahead and put half of it aside to take home for another time.”

She also recommends people avoid drinking their calories, something people tend to do often in the South.

“That’s one of the biggest things in the South,” Cavin said. “Everyone’s always saying it’s fried chicken and other fried stuff, but it’s more drinking sweet tea than anything else.”

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