As a chef, Siva Swaminathan enjoys talking about good nutrition and good food. As a person living with type 1 diabetes and co-founder of Diabetes Canada’s South Asian diabetes chapter, she is even more passionate about sharing her message with others in her community who are living with the condition. With good reason: People of South Asian descent are one of the populations at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
It is a huge task, given that the Greater Toronto Area includes people from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—with many languages, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, and Tamil. “India in itself, I call it a mini Europe!” says Siva, originally from India herself.
Because of this “incredible diversity,” Siva says, “one solution is not going to fit all. We really need to have community members who will voice their opinion” on materials and presentations from Diabetes Canada to ensure the information represents their culture and lifestyle correctly. “Otherwise, people will just put it through the shredder because it won’t be taken seriously.”
One of her first projects for the Canadian Diabetes Association (now Diabetes Canada) involved working on the nutrition committee to review a pamphlet about diabetes and food, and she helped ensure the meal suggestions were appropriate for the South Asian audience. The pamphlet, which features North and South Indian dishes including chapati, sabji (vegetables cooked in curry) and idli (steamed dumplings), is available in English, French, Hindi, Punjabi, and Tamil as part of the Just the Basics resources.
Siva’s drive to teach people about good food and nutrition influences everything she does: from teaching cooking classes at grocery stores or trade shows, to her appearances on local TV shows, or her individual cooking classes for people in their homes through her company, Chezsiva Cooking School. Her philosophy is that ‘cooking healthy’ does not mean you have to compromise taste or starve your senses.
Lifestyle and diabetes management
It is not just about the food, though; the message that lifestyle matters when it comes to good diabetes management and prevention also needs to be tailored to the South Asian audience. “Maybe [people] have recently immigrated or they are working two jobs just to keep up in terms of all the things they want to give their children—because they came here for a better life. So they’re stressed and don’t have time to think about food,” says Siva.
We need to connect the dots about how food is going to affect a person's blood sugar, and how their lifestyle—in terms of getting off the sofa after a long day and exercising—is also going to affect their blood sugar.
Before the pandemic, Siva (now executive chair of the chapter) and the other members got their message out through information sessions and diabetes expos (they’ve held 10 annual expos) as well as written materials. In addition to hearing information presentations by healthcare experts, visitors learned about diabetes supplies and community support groups. And the expos always closed with a Bollywood fitness session. “It’s fun,” Siva says, and a reminder that in the privacy of their home they can “put that music on and chop their vegetables and move their arms and hips.”
Speaking of fun, just this past summer, she walked the catwalk with others in the type 1 community as part of Diabetes Canada’s first-ever Pump Couture Fashion Show fundraiser in which models showed off their diabetes devices.
A passion for helping others
Siva began volunteering for the Canadian Diabetes Association in 2006, a few months after she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 40. Her passion and expertise have been put to good use on the National Advocacy Committee and the Ontario Advocacy Committee. For one Diabetes Awareness Month, the committee went to the provincial legislature to talk to Members of Provincial Parliament about the need for a province-wide policy for children with type 1 diabetes in schools, and for “offloading devices” that shift weight from injured or sensitive parts of the feet in order to help avoid dangerous foot ulcers and amputations. Siva was prepared: “I will not take no for an answer.”
You can join free virtual Diabetes Canada Peer Connect events for networking and education with others living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, their families, friends and caregivers. Sessions are held on Zoom and include speakers on hot topics, a panel of experts and breakout discussions.
Did you know?
December 5 is International Volunteer Day. Diabetes Canada is grateful to Siva and other inspiring volunteers who help us improve the lives of the 11.7 million Canadians with diabetes or prediabetes. We appreciate their time, energy and expertise.
If you’re interested in making a difference, please consider joining our team of committed, generous volunteers. #LetsEndDiabetes
This updated article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2017.
Author: Ruth Hanley
Category Tags: Healthy Living, Advocacy & Policy, Impact Stories;
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