Recognizing Diabetic Clients on Restaurant Menus
By Ted Mazer, MD, President, California Medical Association (2017-18)
As restauranteurs and chefs become more aware of the numbers of diabetics who must limit their choices from today’s menus, I hope they will begin to identify recipes that extend the options for healthy, high-quality, low-sugar options for the more than 1 in 10 Americans that need them.
My wife and I used to frequently enjoy a dessert with coffee or a cappuccino or a glass of port after a dinner out. Her diagnosis of diabetes changed that, although it’s not a big surprise given her strong family history of diabetes.
Roughly 10 percent of the U.S. adult population has diabetes, with 95 percent being type 2 (versus type 1). Another one third of Americans have pre-diabetes. That’s over 100 million potential restaurant customers! (1,2)
While I certainly don’t want to encourage excess calorie consumption, especially in someone with type 2 diabetes, the changes my wife and I had to make to eat out have made us aware of the surprising lack of recognition of diabetic patrons and their needs in restaurants nationwide. And I believe that paying attention to diabetic customers presents an opportunity to both help a major health issue and even increase sales of after-dinner drinks and desserts that can be enjoyed by both diabetic customers and those accompanying them.
We have made a regular habit of asking our server whether there are any sugar-free desserts available, aside from the inevitable response of “We can put a fruit plate together.” And, not surprisingly, the answer is almost always “No, so sorry.” With that answer, the meal is usually over … check please … plus a lost opportunity to please a customer and—from the restaurant’s point of view—raise a check average.
But on the rare occasion that something actually is available, we will often stay and order coffees and dessert, still watching the overall caloric intake. We spend more time at the table, a bit more on our tab, and remember the restaurant’s thoughtfulness for the future, informing friends as well.
Our first such experience was at a Mother’s Day brunch at the Marriott in downtown San Diego. I asked a staff member near the incredible assortment of desserts whether anything was sugar-free on the display. After apologizing, he said he would check with the kitchen. A few minutes later, he found our table and presented a trio of tasty sugar-free pastries for my wife! It was a small gesture with a big impact.
After several failed inquiries at the next series of dining venues, we were shocked by a “Yes” answer at the Inn at Biltmore Estate, which served us a sugar-free lemon semifreddo. In planning California Medical Society events, our staff has found several other accommodating venues, including the Disneyland Hotel, with the ability to provide excellent sugar-free desserts for attendees.
Most restaurants still offer nothing but fruit for a sweet plate after dinner for customers trying to watch their sugar intake. Menus often highlight gluten-free options for most courses along with vegetarian and vegan options, although it is estimated that only 1 percent of Americans have true celiac disease, and perhaps up to 7 percent may be gluten sensitive (3), while an estimated 3 percent of Americans choose to be vegetarians, and less than one quarter of those are vegan (4,5).
In contrast, I have never seen a menu highlighting diabetic, low-sugar options for main courses or desserts. Diabetic diet awareness goes beyond desserts, as common items like tomato sauces and other sauces often have high sugar content—but they need not be so! My wife makes an exceptional low-sugar tomato sauce that would stand up in any restaurant dish.
Restaurants should remember that diabetes is not a choice, but a medical condition that has serious health consequences if not addressed.
Perhaps it is time for a collaborative effort to address the disconnect between restaurant offerings and the high prevalence of diabetes in the United States. As restauranteurs and chefs become more aware of the numbers of diabetics who must limit their choices from today’s menus, I hope they will begin to identify recipes that extend the options for healthy, high-quality, low-sugar options for the more than 1 in 10 Americans that need them.
They would be helping diabetics find eating out less of a challenge, while increasing potential patronage of venues who pay attention to these needs and contributing to a healthier population. And who knows, maybe having such options and a few diabetic-friendly desserts would result in more people—both the diabetic and their dining companions—ordering another course, a couple of cups of coffee, or even an after-dinner drink, instead of declining so as not to make one diner feel uncomfortable.
Let’s have California restaurants help lead the way.