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Gaming With Diabetes: A Guide to Low-Carb Snacking

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue.

Your gaming session is running into its third hour without a break, and some of your players are becoming a little peckish. Or maybe the deal was game-and-dinner. In any case, you’ve got gamers who want something to eat. Easy enough; call out for pizza, or break out the bags of chips and containers of dips, right? Except… Phil’s been diagnosed as diabetic, and has to control his carbohydrate intake. He’s not “on” insulin, he’s got no food allergies, and he’s not under any other dietary restrictions.

In general, managing his dietary restrictions is Phil’s problem, not yours. But gaming is a social activity, and so is snacking or dining in connection with a gaming session. If Phil has to accommodate his diabetes by providing his own snacks, or by not eating with you when you go to the local pub, it’s going to damage the social bonds. So, how can you avoid Phil’s social exclusion?

There are three ways that gaming sessions “attach” food: Packaged snacks, going out/sending out, and cooking in. This article will give you some ideas in all three areas.

The most important thing to do is ask Phil. Don’t press too hard for answers, but don’t let him brush you off with a “don’t worry about it/don’t put yourself out”. Find out what he likes and doesn’t like, and what he’s doing his best to avoid. You may discover that the same-old-same-old is less interesting than Phil’s options, and the entire group will benefit from the variety.

(I’ve written this in ‘host’s voice’, where it’s assumed that the reader is not the diabetic, and merely is looking to accommodate a diabetic gamer/friend. The information here will, however, also be helpful to the diabetic who’s looking for ways to stay involved, while managing his – or her – diabetes.)

Packaged Snacks

Most of the time, ‘packaged snacks’ defaults to things like chips, pretzels, possibly cookies, cakes, and candy, and so on. All of these are high-carb, and Phil isn’t going to be able to have much (and may by choice be avoiding them entirely). There are low-carb packaged snacks, though, and if you include them in the mix, Phil doesn’t necessarily have to exclude himself.

Meat Snacks: Jerky, sausage sticks, and the like. Bacon fits here, too, and I’ve even seen bacon jerky (from Oberto). This can also include sliced deli meats; some delis will take a pepperoni stick and slice it up and package it, for example. You may even be able to get some delis to cube the ‘cold cut’ meat as for an hors d’oeurves tray. Check the “flavors” and ingredients; jerky with barbeque flavoring, for example, is going to be higher in carbs than jerky that’s simply peppered or smoked. Beef vs. pork vs. chicken/turkey won’t make much of a difference, though. Most of them tend to be high-sodium, and they’re definitely calorie-dense.

Cheese Snacks: I don’t mean things like Chee-tos or Cheez-its. I mean things like ‘string cheese’ sticks, or other sticks of real cheese, or mini-cheeses like Babybel, or even the packaged pre-cut cheese squares for crackers – the best ones are the ones that you’ll find in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. Like the meat snacks, cheese snacks are calorie-dense; some of them may also be high-sodium. Some of the more interesting cheeses are actually at the deli counter; you might want to ask whether they can cut it in small cubes as for an hors d’oeuvres tray instead of sandwich slices. A recent find is what I’ve chosen to call ‘cheese crunchies’; while there may be other brands, the ones I found were from Sonoma Creamery, and are made with real cheese and a limited amount of quinoa, oat bran, and brown rice. Where the typical ‘crunchy’ (pretzels, potato chips, nacho chips, etc.) is over (sometimes well over) half carb by weight, these are only about 20% carb by weight.

Olives: Not everyone likes them, but some people do. They’re low carb, but high fat, and thus calorie-dense. Depending on how they’re packaged, sodium may be an issue – but stuffed with pimentos vs. not stuffed won’t be an issue, except in terms of flavor. Olives in a jar are more likely to be high-sodium; if you can, get them from the “olive bar” (like a salad bar, but all olives) in more upscale markets.

Vegetable Trays: Usually, these are carrot and celery sticks, possibly also cauliflower and broccoli tops, along with a little cup of ranch dressing for dipping. Very little downside on these; for variety you might want to put out some mustard for dipping as well. Pickle trays are also good choices, though they tend to use vegetables that are higher in carbs, and the pickling compound also tends to raise the sodium level.

(Cold) Antipasto Platters: Generally have a combination of the above, with a bias toward varieties favored by Italians.

Nuts: There’s a wide variety of these, and all of them are good. Unsalted are best (most salted nuts use too much salt), and when getting prepackaged mixed nuts, try to avoid the ones that call themselves “trail mix”, “sport mix”, “hiker’s mix”, etc. – those generally have dried fruit and other high-carb ‘crunchies’ or chocolate bits in them. Nuts tend to be somewhat less calorie-dense than meat snacks, but also comparatively high-fat.

Seaweed Snacks: Of recent vogue in some areas are sheets of dried, roasted, and pressed seaweed, like maki in Japanese restaurants and sushi bars are wrapped with. While the restaurant version is generally not flavored, the commercial snacking version often comes in flavors like sesame, wasabi, or sea salt. These can be eaten straight from the package, or used to wrap other things.

Beverages: Most soda and other non-diet beverages are loaded with sugar. Make sure there are some diet sodas or diet or unsweetened iced teas available for Phil. Other options are seltzer (including flavored seltzers) or ‘sparkling water’ beverages (provided that if they’re sweetened rather than just flavored, it’s a zero-calorie sweetener), or even flavored water beverages (same caveat regarding sweetening). (Note that what are called ‘diet’ beverages in the United States may be called ‘light’ beverages elsewhere, where there may be stiffer regulations regarding the term ‘diet’. The thing to look for is near-zero calories, and 5g of carbohydrate or less per serving (generally 12-20 oz./350-600ml).) While fruit juice is often touted as an alternative to soda or other sweetened beverages, even the ones that don’t have added sugar have plenty of natural sugars, and will be high in carbs—best to avoid them. If it’s cold out, and hot beverages are the order of the day, coffee and tea (including herbal teas) are fine; let everyone add adulterants (milk, sugar, lemon, etc.) on their own. Hot chocolate/cocoa, however, is Very Bad from Phil’s point of view.

Alcohol: While alcohol has problems associated with it, surprisingly, carbs isn’t generally one of them. Wine is 2 carbs per (8 oz.) glass; beer is 13 carbs per (12 oz.) can; most “hard liquor” (spirits) are zero if not in ‘mixed drinks’. Liqueurs/cordials and most mixed drinks or cocktails tend to have a great deal of added sugar or sugar syrup, and should be avoided.

Going Out or Ordering Out

Whether you go to the food, or the food comes to you, the issues are the same. The important distinction is whether you’re ordering separate plates for everyone, or a collection of dishes that will be served ‘family style’ or ‘buffet style’, with everyone getting to try everything.

In the first case (separate plates for each), you can more-or-less leave Phil to deal with his diabetes as he chooses. The trick is going to be to agree on a source that can supply things that he can eat. Look for places that offer salads and vegetables as side dishes; potatoes, especially fried potatoes, are high in carbs, and Phil is likely to be looking to avoid them. If the centerpiece of the meal has options that aren’t sandwiches, that’s even better. A place that offers a wide choice of soups (in the northeastern US, Hale and Hearty comes to mind) and salads is a good choice, but it really is possible for Phil to find a workable meal even at McDonald’s or Burger King. Popeye’s or KFC is a bit more problematical, however.

In the second case (sharing dishes), again, Phil can generally manage it himself, but make sure that at least a couple of dishes are his choice, or are at least compatible with his restrictions. Steamed or grilled vegetable dishes are good, so are meats without sauces, or with light sauces such as garlic or mustard. Fruit sauces, sweet sauces or sauces with added sugar, honey, molasses, etc. (like most barbeque sauces), should be avoided. Fried – especially battered-and-fried – is also something to be cautious of. Avoid dishes that rely on rice, noodles, grits, polenta, or other grains as a base (for example, biryani or pad thai). Dishes where the grain product is optional, such as fajitas or moo shu anything, are also OK if the rest of the dish is compatible with Phil’s restrictions; you really don’t have to wrap the shredded vegetables and meat in the tortilla or rice pancake (nor is the hoisin sauce or other condiment mandatory).

Other good choices are meat-and/or-vegetables-on-a-stick dishes, variously called kebab, satay, shashlik, yakitori, and so on. Again, watch the sauces and seasonings.

Going All Out: Cooking at Home

Most of what you need to know is actually covered in the previous sections. Don’t just go for the simple pasta-with-sauce option; stir-frys with meat and green vegetables are almost as easy and almost as fast – and if they’re done properly, you’re not adding a lot of fat or carbs in the process. Making your own chicken fingers isn’t out of the question, either; cut chicken cutlets into strips inch to 1 inch wide, and 3 inches or so long, and then cook them, maybe microwave, bake, or broil (or even grill if you’re outdoors in grilling weather); no breading or frying. For dipping sauces, Buffalo wing sauce, mustard (spicy brown or Dijon), sriracha, ranch salad dressing, probably many other “light” salad dressings are best; for variety, take some mustard and blend some horseradish in – not the red horseradish, the white. Honey mustard and barbeque sauces are loaded with sugar and sugar equivalents; best avoid them.

If you want to try your hand at things like kebab, satay, shashlik, yakitori, and so on, look to your broiler if you’re not using a grill outdoors.

Instead of filled dumplings or buns (bao, gyoza, shu-mai, wonton, samosa, pasties, kreplach, blintzes, blini, etc.), take the seaweed snacks mentioned earlier, and make temaki, the cone-shaped “hand rolls” sometimes available in sushi bars. Or, take a lettuce leaf and wrap the filling in it.

Instead of mashed potatoes, try mashed cauliflower – it’s not ideal, either in taste or texture, but it’s a reasonable substitute, and you can do to it what you can do to mashed potatoes – mix in butter, bacon, cheese, your secret herb-and-spice combo, whatever.

Desserts

There is no question that desserts, by their nature, are going to be problematical. Sometimes, you can find sugar-free versions of gelatin desserts or pudding desserts, but my experience has been that they’re often subtly “off” in flavor and texture. Fresh fruit is a possibility; melons (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, etc.), peaches, and strawberries are lowest in carbs, but moderate amounts of any fruit make a good substitute for sweet desserts. Avoid canned fruit salad or fruit cocktail; they’re generally packaged in juice or syrup with added sugar. Couple the fruit with cheese; it’s a nice combination of flavors, and somehow adds an air of sophistication to the end of the meal.

(Disclosure: I’m “Phil”, but I’m sure I’m not the only one…)