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Changing Our Food Choices: If You See Something, Say Something

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I live in New York City and frequently travel to small towns and cities around the U.S. I talk to patients with diabetes, inspiring them to take better care of themselves. That includes how they eat.

Last week on one of my trips I was yet again disappointed at how we encourage people to eat healthfully and not 14 hours later I was staring at a remarkably unhealthful breakfast buffet.

It was included with my hotel stay, and I could barely find a thing to eat.

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Here's what was on offer:

Cupcake-like muffins
Cheap, frozen bagels
Commercial white and whole wheat bread
Artificial-product-laden waffle mix with additive-loaded commercial maple syrup
Sweetened vanilla yogurt
Mixed berries swimming in sugary syrup
Processed egg patties
Overcooked breakfast link sausages
4 cold cereals, two of which were sweetened
Thin and watery oatmeal
Fresh red apples

I had just spoken to a group of people with diabetes in Batavia, N.Y., a small hamlet midway between Buffalo and Rochester. One hundred people had traveled up to an hour to attend.

I share basic information regarding blood sugar management and my own success story managing my diabetes. That includes making healthy food choices, watching portion sizes and getting daily exercise.

After the lecture all the questions were about food: Do you count calories? How do you eat well when you travel so much? How can one eat healthy on a budget? What do you eat?

I suggested when traveling that one should make the healthiest choices available: Even McDonalds now offers apple slices. Also, whole grains, beans and pasta are healthy and inexpensive items to prepare at home if you're on a budget. (And no, I don't count calories.)

Yet there I was the next morning in a fair-sized city, Rochester, N.Y., staring at a stunning array of cheap, fake sugar- and fat-loaded breakfast choices. I was steamed at the disparity between the daily barrage of media messages and government food guidelines to eat healthfully and how we make it so infuriatingly difficult to do so. Really, what would it take to add bananas and oranges to that buffet? Keep some of those berries out of the sugar dip? Offer plain yogurt as well as flavored? Real hard-boiled eggs?

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The friend I was traveling with, who happens to be a home economist, explained to me that there likely wasn't a kitchen on the premises of our little hotel, so all the edibles had to be defrosted or microwaveable, limiting their choices. All right. But for each of the foods that they did serve, there are more healthful alternatives that they could have offered; the usual culprit is cost. So now explain to me how we expect Americans to lose weight and eat healthfully when corporate profits are more important than our health?

Why does no one seem to realize that dollars reaped today by serving cheap food will come back to bite us when everyone has one or more chronic illnesses and we're paying exorbitant costs for healthcare and job absenteeism? Surely there must be tens of thousands of people smarter than I who know this.

As I went around taking photos, I watched a mother and her three children munching on the oh-so-fun-to-make, highly refined waffles with high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden syrup. Does she know she's turning her children into little sugar, fat and salt addicts?

After trying and discarding the inedible oatmeal and the plastic egg patty puck, I finally toasted a piece of refined whole wheat bread, slathered it with peanut butter and put some sugared berries on it.

Leaving the dining room, I walked over to the manager behind the registration desk and politely said, "I'm wondering, would it be possible to put a few healthier items on your breakfast buffet?" Johnny (I read his name tag) was immediately defensive. "What do you mean 'healthier' items? What's not 'healthy?" he asked. So I told him. My friend moved a few feet away.

He listened, but I knew I hadn't reached him. So I pulled out my ace card. "I have diabetes," I said sweetly, "and I can't eat much sugar, and there was almost nothing on your breakfast buffet without sugar."

Remarkably, he softened, and within a minute he said, "You know, I agree with you." I reached across the desk and shook Johnny's hand. His eyes sparkled; he was part of the mission. My friend and I went up to our room to pack. She said to me in front of our door, laughing, "You never cease to amaze me how you do that. Before you know it, they're on your side."

When we came downstairs 20 minutes later to check out, Johnny said, "I was just looking to see whether you were going to be with us for breakfast tomorrow. I was going to order whatever you needed." I was moved and impressed. He continued, "If you ever stay with us again, please call us ahead and we'll have what you need here for breakfast." Johnny, you're the man!

The moral of the story: As they say on the New York City subway, "If you see something, say something." Who knows? We might just win this war for health one voice, and one Johnny, at a time.

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Riva is the author of "50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It" and "The ABCs of Loving Yourself with Diabetes." Visit her website, DiabetesStories.com.