Chef Art Smith on How to Survive Thanksgiving with Diabetes

Learn how the celebrity chef changed his diet, and his outlook on food
photo provided by GCI Health

Art Smith dishes on healthy eating and living with diabetes.

You may know the name Art Smith, the talented chef, restaurateur, and author, but you may not know he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

"For years, my doctor had been telling me that I needed to lose weight and warning me that I was at risk for diabetes, but I never changed my lifestyle," says Smith. "I didn’t exercise, had very little energy, and weighed more than 325 pounds. That all changed when I had a scare and thought I was having a heart attack."

Since his scare, Smith has been refocusing his life and eating habits to become a healthier individual. He even teamed up with Merck and Taking Diabetes to Heart (a resource of diabetes-friendly recipes, as well as other helpful tips) to tackle the serious issue of bringing delicious, healthy recipes into a diabetic’s kitchen.

We recently sat down with Smith to discuss his experience of living with diabetes and tackling the tough sweet season of the holidays!

The Daily Meal: Tell us a little bit about your struggle with diabetes and what your first holiday was like after finding out about it?

Art Smith: After my type 2 diabetes diagnosis, I became serious about my health and worked with my doctor to develop a diabetes-management plan that was right for me, including diet and exercise, and setting individual goals to manage the ABCs of diabetes — that’s "A" for A1C, also known as blood sugar, "B" for blood pressure, and "C" for cholesterol. I also made sure that I stuck to a consistent eating schedule to manage my risks for high and low blood sugar.

One of the more difficult aspects of diabetes management can be adjusting the way you eat and not giving into temptation, but as a chef I know it’s possible to make favorite recipes in a healthier way and that moderation is key, so I decided to remake some of my favorites so that the holiday was just as joyous.

TDM: Aside from sugar, what do home chefs have to consider when cooking for a diabetic guest?

AS: Home chefs shouldn’t treat a diabetic guest differently, because there are certain things they should be careful with for all guests! Everyone should be conscious of salt and sugar intake, as these are not good for anyone, and you can still make a delicious meal that’s healthy for everyone without a lot of those things.

A helpful tip on salt: Just use a pinch when needed. I also like to use an acid like lime or lemon juice instead of salt in a dish because it gives great flavor without the sodium.

TDM: Do you have any easy weeknight staples?

AS: I oftentimes cook from my book, Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort, which has diabetes-friendly and health- conscious recipes. The book is all about healthy cooking and good eating, without losing the flavors you love. The book has very modern healthy dishes as well as lightened-up classic comfort foods that are fine to eat in moderation, such as Un-Fried Chicken with Roasted Brussels Sprouts.

TDM: How can families make it fun for young diabetic kids on the holidays?

AS: A great dessert option for kids is fruit kebabs — they are fun, and healthy, to eat. Another alternative is to give them apples with almond or peanut butter.

TDM: What is the best etiquette for serving diabetic guests? Ways to make sure everyone feels included?

AS: Just because someone has type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean they have to eat alone! Through my partnership with Merck and Taking Diabetes to Heart, I’ve started cooking up delicious, diabetes-friendly dishes that everyone can enjoy. We have a great website,, where you can find my delicious diabetes-friendly recipes which can ensure everyone feels "included" yet still taste great for everyone around the table. I also tell people to try to give lots of healthy options during a meal, like a variety of vegetables and to serve salad dressing and sauces on the sides so people can choose whether they put it on their meals or not.

TDM: What are some good staples to have in your home to be prepared for a guest who has this specific diet?

AS: There are a few things that are always in my kitchen: fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, extra-virgin oil, and whole grains such as quinoa. As a general tip, people living with type 2 diabetes as well as those committed to eating healthier foods should try to avoid foods that are high in sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

TDM: What is the most surprisingly flavorful diabetic adapted recipe?

AS: One of my favorites is my ''un-fried” chicken.  That's because I am well known for fried chicken, which may be the crown jewel of Southern cooking. I like un-fried chicken even more because it is healthy and something the whole family can enjoy. The chicken is soaked in tangy buttermilk and then coated with flavorful breading, just like fried chicken. The difference is that it's baked.

TDM: What are you planning on doing for your Thanksgiving table?

AS: I don’t believe in a fat-free Thanksgiving, so what I do is enjoy it, and then go back to my plan. Moderation and watching portion size is also key around the holidays.

TDM: What should guests keep in mind when prepping Thanksgiving specifically?
I think it’s helpful to be organized — the hardest thing about Thanksgiving is not the calories, but the stress from planning the holiday. Try to relax and enjoy it.

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Also, when you’re prepping for the big holiday, don’t forget your own health! In addition to eating healthier, I stick to a consistent eating schedule to help manage my blood sugar. Most people living with diabetes are aware of the importance of managing high blood sugar — one of the defining characteristics of diabetes — which can lead to serious long-term health problems. However, for individuals on certain diabetes medications, low blood sugar can be caused by skipping meals or excessive exercise, which can make you feel shaky, dizzy, sweaty, hungry, and, sometimes, faint. During the holidays, specifically, it’s hard to stick to that plan, but by prepping ahead of time and keeping my dishes diabetes-friendly, it’ll be much easier to be in control.