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Originally published August 22, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified August 23, 2010 at 7:03 AM

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Seattle Mexican restaurant creates diabetes-friendly menu

Last March, Seattle restaurant owner Ramiro Rubio came to a realization: Diabetes was likely in his future. He was overweight, and several family members had the disease

Seattle Times staff reporter

Galerias Gourmet is located at 611 Broadway E in Capitol Hill.

Last March, Seattle restaurant owner Ramiro Rubio came to a realization: Diabetes was likely in his future.

He was overweight, and several family members had the disease. In addition, his Latin American heritage meant he was 1 ½ times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with the disease.

"It's a big crisis right now with the Latino community," he said.

Rubio wanted to do something about it, and not just for himself. He eventually decided to create a diabetes-friendly menu for his Capitol Hill restaurant, Galerias Gourmet.

But what exactly was better for diabetics? He had no idea. And how do you make Mexican food healthful? Most Mexican restaurants offer free bowls of fried tortilla chips; they often drench entrees in cheese or deep-fry them; and virtually everything comes with a hefty side of carbohydrate-heavy beans and rice. Customers come to expect that sort of thing, Rubio said.

For help, he turned to local health authorities, who educated him and enlisted a nutritionist to review his menu. It's part of a major health initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to change health outcomes in high-risk communities.

REACH, a part of Public Health — Seattle and King County, has long been involved in fighting diabetes, but it's been targeted at individuals, Blishda Lacet said. "We're now ... looking more at what we can do to impact the community at a higher level," she said. Rubio's goal seemed like a good fit. Public Health had worked on a similar initiative targeting restaurants in Rainier Valley.

On Galerias' menu, nutritionist Janet Kapp found a number of things to like: several items already met healthful dietary guidelines, and most dishes were made almost completely from scratch, which made it easier to tweak recipes.

But Kapp had a lot of suggestions. Some of the side dishes were too heavy on the starch, including, for example, one with potatoes and beans. Substitute a non-starchy vegetable, like zucchini, the nutritionist said, and the dish would be healthier. (Starchy foods, which are high in carbohydrates, tend to elevate blood sugar levels, which isn't good for people with diabetes.) Skip the cream-based dressings and instead offer vinegar and olive oil — a healthy fat. And switch to part-skim cheese and low-fat sour cream.

Rubio followed a number of her suggestions. But as a restaurateur, he knows you can't rush in and change everything. Customers might revolt.

He also created a temporary menu featuring entirely new items that avoided deep-frying and cheese-drenching, like grilled chicken with orange juice, onions and cilantro. He said customers are pleased.

Still, there are certain things he can't imagine changing — like the chips and salsa on every table. But he plans on adding the most popular diabetic-friendly items like the chicken dish to his permanent menu in the fall.

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A remaining question is how to label the healthful items — or whether they should get the "healthy" label at all.

"From a marketing standpoint," said Mayra Carrillo a health educator with Sea Mar Community Health Centers, "that can be kind of a kiss of death."

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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