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Living with diabetes doesn't have to be boring when the focus is on options and not on limits, says a cookbook author and former beauty queen.

This week Nicole Johnson marks an important anniversary: She is beginning her 20th year of living successfully with Type 1 diabetes.

Since being diagnosed, she has won a Miss America title, earned three college degrees and is pursuing a doctorate in public health, has launched a small business, written several books, given birth to a daughter who is now 6 years old, helped raise millions of dollars for diabetes research and serves as executive director of a new diabetes research and education program she helped create at the University of South Florida.

Not bad for the woman who was told at age 19 that she would never be a mother and should avoid stress.

"Back then we were told to eat chicken and broccoli and pretty much avoid everything else," said Johnson, looking like a beauty queen as she shaped ground turkey into patties in her bright South Tampa kitchen.

"I said to myself, there's got to be more."

Johnson quickly learned there was plenty she could do, but that the essential ingredient was maintaining a well-balanced diet and lifestyle.

She also learned that balance didn't have to mean drudgery - information that she knew wasn't reaching many Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics struggling to balance carbs, fats, protein and calories.

Johnson teamed up with a popular cook she met at a diabetes conference - a guy known in the 1990s for his syndicated television cooking segments called Mr. Food.

Art Ginsburg had been diagnosed with diabetes and Johnson suggested they work together on a cookbook for diabetics. The pair produced three books for the American Diabetes Association. Then, in 2010 Johnson came out with a book of her own, Nicole Johnson's Diabetes Recipe Makeovers (Publications International Ltd., 2010), that transforms more than 100 family favorites into healthy dishes that diabetics can enjoy.

The book addresses something Johnson says is missing in similar cookbooks.

"It teaches people about negotiation and shifts the conversation away from focusing on limitations to one that focuses on options," said Johnson. "I show you how to negotiate your way through a meal so your carb bank isn't full when you get to foods you love."

She notes that the holiday season, with its parade of food, is particularly challenging for diabetics and can be even more daunting if you are a guest and can't control what is served at a meal or party. Instead of thinking of all the things you can't eat, Johnson suggests scanning the entire menu and deciding which high-carbohydrate item you want the most and skipping or having just a bite of the others.

For instance, if dessert is your goal, skip the mixed cocktails, potatoes and bread.

"I find out what is being served and make food decisions before walking in the door," said Johnson.

As you might expect, Johnson has her diabetes under good control. But it takes hard work every day, particularly when you have Type 1, the most serious form of the disease in which the pancreas fails to produce insulin. Even with vigilance, there's no guarantee she won't have a scare with low blood sugar.

In fact, she now is training her 6-month-old Labradoodle puppy, Lucy, to alert her when her blood sugar levels are dipping.

How can a dog do that? By learning to detect a scent on the human breath that develops when blood sugar levels drop rapidly. When the dog notices this, she nudges or licks her mistress, gets help from somebody else in the house - and can even fetch food or liquid.

Lucy, who wears a vest identifying her as an assist dog in training, is an apt, well-behaved pupil. As Johnson was cooking, and delicious aromas filled the air, Lucy stayed close by, but never angled for a handout.

The same, however, couldn't be said for Johnson's human guests.

Irene Maher can be reached at

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Holiday treats

We asked Johnson to share some of her favorite recipes that would work well during the holidays, either for a meal or cut into bite-sized portions for a party.


"This is all about rethinking a vegetable staple. The sun-dried tomatoes make it festive. We make this one at least once a week in our home," Johnson said.

1 pound green beans, ends trimmed

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

5 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup toasted, sliced almonds

1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil), sliced

1/4 teaspoon salt

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add green beans and boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

Heat 2 teaspoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add green beans, mushrooms and almonds. Cook and stir 3 minutes. Add sun-dried tomatoes and remaining olive oil and cook and stir another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 15 minutes. Season with salt before serving.

Makes 6 servings (2/3 cup per serving).

Calories, 101; total fat, 6 grams; protein, 4 grams; carbohydrates, 11 grams

Dietary exchanges: 1 fat, 2 vegetable

Adapted from Nicole Johnson's Diabetes Recipe Makeovers


"This one feels fancy, yet it's easy to make,'' Johnson said. "Use chicken tenderloin strips and put the cheese under the chicken strip - it becomes a surprise flavor that's celebratory and impressive."

8 slices lean prosciutto

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, 4 ounces each, pounded to -1/4 inch thick, cut in half crosswise

2 to 3 ounces goat cheese, divided into 8 portions

24 basil leaves, plus more for garnish

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 tablespoons dry red wine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8- by 8-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Lay prosciutto on clean work surface or cutting board. Place chicken on top of each prosciutto piece. Top chicken with one portion of goat cheese. Place 3 basil leaves on top of each mound of cheese. Wrap prosciutto around chicken and secure with toothpicks in an X fashion.

Heat oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring about 2 minutes, until softened. Deglaze pan with wine. Transfer chicken bundles to prepared baking pan; pour shallot and wine over chicken. Bake in preheated oven 20 minutes, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked. Remove from oven; garnish with fresh basil, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

Calories, 219; total fat, 8 grams; protein, 31 grams; carbohydrates, 1 gram

Dietary exchange: 4 meat

Note: To serve as an appetizer, slice into bite-sized portions after cooking and skewer with toothpicks. Nutrition information per serving will be different than what is given.

Adapted from Nicole Johnson's Diabetes Recipe Makeovers


"I like this because it's a new twist on sliders. Turkey makes it lean, the spinach and sauce add satisfying tang and the mini pita pockets reduce the carb count" from the usual slider buns, Johnson said. These got two thumbs up from Times photographer Scott Keeler, who also has diabetes.

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped green onion

1 pound ground turkey breast

12 mini whole wheat pita breads, split open

24 baby spinach leaves, rinsed and dried

1/4 cup shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese

1 shallot, sliced into 12 thin slices

2 tablespoons bottled steak sauce (optional)

Combine Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise, salt and pepper in large bowl. Mix well. Add onions and ground turkey. Gently knead ingredients together. Do not overwork. Shape into 12 patties about 2 inches across.

Cook on a nonstick skillet or tabletop electric grill coated with cooking spray for about 4 to 6 minutes on each side or until lightly browned and cooked through.

Line up split pita halves and top with 2 baby spinach leaves. Place one turkey patty on each and top with 1 teaspoon cheese, 1 shallot slice and -1/2 teaspoon steak sauce, if desired. Top with remaining pita bread halves.

Makes 6 servings (2 sliders per serving).

Calories, 262; total fat, 4 grams; protein, 24 grams; carbohydrates, 31 grams

Dietary exchange: 2 meat, 2 starch

Adapted from Nicole Johnson's Diabetes Recipe Makeovers


Even without gooey frosting, these are seriously good. Irene Maher whipped up a batch at home and quickly tucked most of them into the freezer to avoid temptation. Whether you're diabetic or just weight conscious, portion control is key. What's the secret to these treats? "Unsweetened cocoa powder is low in calories but intense in flavor,'' said Johnson.

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons stick margarine, softened

1/2 cup cholesterol-free egg substitute

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

2 tablespoons miniature semisweet chocolate chips

2 tablespoons powdered sugar, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper baking cup liners.

Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Beat granulated sugar and margarine in large bowl with electric mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add egg substitute and vanilla; beat until blended. Alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk, beating just until combined after each addition. Stir in chocolate chips. Spoon batter evenly into prepared muffin cups.

Bake about 15 to 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted into centers comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs attached. Cool in pan 5 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.

Makes 12 servings (1 cupcake per serving).

Calories, 143; total fat, 3 grams; protein, 3 grams; carbohydrates, 25 grams

Dietary exchanges: 1/2 fat, 1-1/2 starch

Note: These can be made in mini cupcake pans for one- or two-bite treats. Use about a tablespoon of batter per cupcake and bake about 11 to 14 minutes. Each mini cupcake has just 66 calories if you make 26 cakes.

Adapted from Nicole Johnson's Diabetes Recipe Makeovers

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If your holiday guests have diabetes, here are some suggestions for meeting their needs without stressing yourself out, or making them feel self-conscious. Bonus: Your weight-conscious guests will thank you, too.

- Stock diet sodas and sugar-free mixers and juices if you're making a signature cocktail.

- For appetizers, Jane Norman, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian with the USF Diabetes Center, recommends steamed whole edamame pods like you get in Japanese restaurants. "They're high in fiber, low in carbs and have a limited effect on blood sugar," she said. Other good options: hummus and fresh salsa served with celery for scooping instead of chips.

- Walnuts and pecans are among the lowest-carb nuts per ounce, but because of their high fat and calories, they are best enjoyed in small quantities.

- Cheeses are also low in carbs, but high in fat and calories, so enjoy in small amounts.

- Any lean meat, fish or poultry without skin.

- Nicole Johnson, who likes to limit carbs to about 30 per meal, suggests including a variety of salad greens and nonstarchy vegetables. Serve dressings and sauces on the side so guests can better control calories, fat and carbs.

- For dessert, Norman suggests any kind of berries with lightwhipped topping. Johnson said this is especially good with a small slice of angel food cake.

- For breakfasts, berries, low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, sugar-free cereals, jams, whole-grain breads, egg substitute and sugar substitute are all good to have on hand.