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Ellon councillor: Vegans and gluten-free get them, so where are our diabetes-friendly menus?

In between opening bridges with King Charles, Gillian Owen would like to eat in restaurants that make it easier to manage her newly-diagnosed diabetes.

A headshot of Ellon councillor Gillian Owen next to a photo of some fish and chips.
Ellon councillor Gillian Owen, left, can no longer eat a full plate of fish and chips so is calling for diabetes-friendly menus. Image: DC Thomson

Ellon councillor Gillian Owen has had to get used to a lot since she was diagnosed with diabetes in October.

There’s the chronic pain in her fingers now she can no longer take anti-inflammatories for her osteoarthritis.

Then there’s controlling the spiking blood pressure she says could have killed her if gone untreated.

Gillian Owen stands in front of a fence in an undated photo.
Gillian says it is time for restaurants to better serve diabetics like her. Image: Paul Glendell/DC Thomson

The biggest change, however, is that she now has to practise portion control.

“Portion control?” she says with disdain. “I always thought portion control was what my mum and dad did at the seaside holiday hotel in Margate – three potatoes for each brussels sprout and two slices of meat.”

A change that will make a different to diabetics like Gillian

Since October, Gillian — who is also Aberdeenshire council leader — has had to completely overhaul how she eats, swapping honey for Canderel, and Corona beer for the non-alcoholic alternative.

She’s lost weight, she says, but having to think about what she eats for the first time in 58 years has been “daunting”, especially when she’s eating out.

So, she is calling for a change she believes will make a significant difference to diabetics like herself.

A photo of an "I am Vegan" sticker on a cardboard food box
If you can have vegan menus, why not diabetes menus, says Ellon councillor Gillian Owen? Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

Restaurants, she says, need to take a leaf out of the gluten-free and vegan playbooks and start having diabetes-friendly menus.

“I’m not a trained chef,” says Gillian. “I don’t know how many grams of fat I need, or how many grams of salt or whatever is in food.

“I just want to have a standard meal that you can eat while not thinking, oh my God, what’s this doing to my blood sugar?”

Stay away from the children’s menu

Gillian says a diabetes menu would help simplify matters for diabetics like her suddenly made aware of the consequences of eating too much.

“I know I can’t eat as much as I have done. I know I have to be picky and choosey,” she says.

And, she makes clear, it’s not just a matter of choosing the smaller meals from the children’s menu, which is full of things like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets – all of which are on her diabetic do-not-eat list.

A photo of some delicious-looking mac and cheese with garlic bread.
Mac and cheese is off the menu for Gillian after her diabetes diagnoses. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

She also shakes off suggestions that portion control is down to the customer rather than the kitchen.

“I get that,” she says. “But if you ask for a small portion, they invariably say no. But if you could say to the waitress that you are diabetic then they’d instantly know you’d need a small portion.

Gillian continues: “I’d pay the full price just to have a small portion. Because, firstly, it’s really off-putting to have a whole mound of food that you know you can’t eat. And secondly, there are the unintended consequences of what it does to your blood sugar.”

Family to the rescue as Gillian grapples with diabetes

Speaking of unintended consequences, Gillian’s family have so far been the main beneficiaries of her dietary changes.

Husband Steve was able to polish off her leftover steak a few nights previously while her son Alex came to the rescue in a Turkish restaurant in Rosemount, courageously offering to finish the mezze plates she couldn’t eat.

Gillian, on the other hand, has been through a lot since a blood pressure check in September revealed dangerously high levels.

A photo of a small amount of food on a large plate
Gillian now has to practise portion control. Image: Shutterstock

“It was 180 over 88,” says Gillian who was in hospital for a pre-op for two hand operations she’s getting to help fix the osteoarthritis that has bent her fingers out of shape.

“I said, no it’s not because my son has one of those smart watches and it said it was only 139 over 80. And she said: ‘Lose the watch. They’re not truthful.’”

The blood pressure check that may have saved her life

About a month later — not long after she accompanied King Charles as he opened the new Gairnshiel Jubilee Bridge in Gillian’s home town of Ellon – she was diagnosed with diabetes. She’s still waiting for confirmation on whether it is type one or type two.

She was also told she has chronic kidney disease, a result of the anti-inflammatories she’d been taking for her arthritis pain.

She’d already stopped taking the anti-inflammatories ahead of the hand operations she’s in line for. However, she’s annoyed no one warned her of their effect on her kidneys.

It’s the damage to her kidneys that has led to the high blood pressure and diabetes, she says.

Gillian Owen smiles at the the Aberdeen election count in 2022.
Gillian at the Aberdeen election count in 2022. Image: Scott Baxter/DC Thomson

“If I hadn’t gone for that pre-op blood pressure test,” she says, “I could have had a heart attack, I could have had a stroke.”

Meanwhile, she’s working hard at keeping those portion sizes down. But it hasn’t been easy.

“You know, everything in moderation, right?” she says. “But that does mean small portions. It doesn’t mean pile you’re plate up with chips.

“As much as I’d like to eat them.”