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Small changes to diet can have big impact on health

Sharlene Williams grew up in a household that favored Southern foods, including fried meats served with generous portions of starches like macaroni and cheese, with plenty of cookies, cakes and other sugary treats for dessert.

“In my family, when they gave you a plate of food, you didn’t see the plate,” said Williams, 48, who lives in the ArtSpace apartment building on Main Street downtown.

Williams was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after she was born and started using a wheelchair at age 3. She grew to love her diet, and packed on lots of weight, particularly after the birth of her daughter, Betty “Tia” Williams, 22 years ago.

“I had physical therapy,” she said, “but it’s not like I can walk a marathon.”

Her weight caught up to her in a dangerous way last September, when a lab test showed she had a hemoglobin A1c blood-sugar level of 7.8 – in the diabetic range. She was upset to learn that such levels put her at greater risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, amputation and blindness.

So Williams went to work on her eating habits, with help from Janet Lenichek, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Aspire of Western New York. Williams sees her medical team and takes art classes at the agency’s Cheektowaga site.

Lenichek first saw Williams last November. She advised her to stop eating sugar-laden foods and give up the pop and juices she enjoyed. Williams switched to water. She ate more vegetables and fewer carbohydrates. She swapped in popcorn for chips, addressed her chocolate cravings by eating a handful of M&Ms instead of much of a bag, and started scraping the frosting off the cakes regularly served by loved ones to celebrate almost everything.

At meals, she usually ate only healthy foods she could squeeze into a medium-sized bowl Lenichek had given her. If she ate a bit more, she drank more water.

“I see it as a learning experience,” Williams said. “It’s been hard but I’ve talked to my friends about it, and they’re helping me.”

Those friends and family members have learned important lessons along the way, too, Lenichek said.

“Most Americans overeat carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice, noodles, baked goods,” she said. “People show love by giving food. Unfortunately, at lot of the times it’s more pasta or more pizza,” or other high-carb foods that can do more harm to health than good.

With her nutritionist’s help, Williams has lost a dozen pounds during the last 10 months, mostly in her midsection. More importantly, her three-month blood sugar average has fallen to 5.6, in the normal range.

She aims to stay at that healthier level, keep eating better and lose more weight.

Williams still has her moments, but tries to be thoughtful about better eating the vast majority of the time.

“For the most part, people think you’re a little weird” when you eat right, she said, but she’s growing used to it.

– Scott Scanlon

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