LesDaChef – living with diabetes

Five months ago, Lesego Semenya, aka LesDaChef, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. We caught up with the 36-year-old chef to see if his love for food has changed.

Lesego Semenya (36) stays in Meredale, JHB south, Gauteng.

Who is LesDaChef?

I’m a former process engineer. I used to wear a tie and suit every day for six years before the madness hit me. After I quit the corporate scene I travelled around SA for a year. Once I got tired of that I enrolled at Prue Leith Chef’s Academy in June 2009. I studied towards a Grande Diploma in Food and Wine (basically I’m a chef with an expensive signed cardboard that says I am).

Whilst at the academy, I entered a World Cup Pie Designing competition run by the British High Commission. I won; the prize was a trip to London to cook in one of the best restaurants in the UK, Corrigans Mayfair.

I’ve cooked for TV shows, for celebrities, for politicians and high profile people. I’ve worked in restaurants, game lodges, as a private chef and in catering.

Tell us more about your diagnosis

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in April 2018, a few days after my birthday. My symptoms included fatigue, excessive craving of frozen food items, unquenchable thirst, running to the loo uncontrollably, struggling with sleep and sunken eyes.

I went to the pharmacy to get a vitamin B shot, thinking it was just tiredness from work. The pharmacist on duty told me to first do a blood glucose test.

After a few tests, the nurse at the pharmacy immediately told me to head to hospital. I was admitted for two weeks.

In your blog, you speak about not even knowing what type of diabetes your father had. Please explain.

Even though we knew my dad was diabetic, we kids didn’t know the type he had or what it meant. (He has Type 1 diabetes). As kids, you don’t really see any symptoms of diabetes in your parents. Especially, if they look after themselves well. Without obvious symptoms, we assumed it was a simple thing. We just knew the diet we had at home was different from our friends and relatives but we just thought it was because our father was a health freak. My dad didn’t really go into the details of what his diabetes was about.

Usually Type 1 is diagnosed in childhood. How did the doctors explain your diagnosis in adulthood?

Type 1 can happen at any stage of a person’s life. Internationally, doctors still don’t know what triggers it. My dad only got diagnosed with Type 1 in his 30s as well, like myself.

Are you aware of Type 1.5 diabetes?

No, I’ve only ever heard of Type 1 and Type 2.

What is Type 1.5 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes diagnosed in adults over 30 may be Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA), sometimes known as Type 1.5 diabetes. LADA is sometimes referred to as Type 1.5 diabetes. This is not an official term but it does illustrate the fact that LADA is a form of Type 1 diabetes that shares some characteristics with Type 2 diabetes. As a form of Type 1 diabetes, LADA is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and kills off insulin producing cells. The reasons why LADA can often be mistaken for Type 2 diabetes is it develops over a longer period of time than Type 1 diabetes in children or younger adults. Whereas Type 1 diabetes in children tends to develop quickly, sometimes within the space of days, LADA develops more slowly, sometimes over a period of years. The slower onset of diabetes symptoms being presented in people over 35 years may lead a GP to initially diagnose a case of LADA as Type 2 diabetes. (Source: www.diabetes.co.uk)  Look out for our summer issue where we cover Type 1.5 in much more detail.

What insulin are you on?

The insulin I’m on at the moment is Insuman Comb 30/70. I also take Amlodipine (for high blood pressure) and Simvastatin (for high cholestrol).

You bought a Contour Plus glucose monitor? Explain why?

I was given a machine by the hospital, one made by On Call. I used it for the first 30 days after my diagnosis. Though, finding test strips for the machine became a problem. I then purchased a Contour Plus machine. It’s smaller and slicker then the standard machines out there and the strips are available at most pharmacies. It syncs with my phone and has a brilliant app that helps track your nutrient intake, your exercise routine and your sugar levels. This helps in keeping track of what foods spike your sugar levels and how you react to different things. It saves all the data to the cloud so even if you lose your phone your data is always available.

How have you been managing since your diagnosis?

My daily readings have been consistent and steady. There has been one high spike and one extremely low but these were linked to being busy with work and not being vigilant with my water intake and not eating regular small portions. Other than that, I’ve been coping well.

I’ve also slowed down my routine. I have stopped working on Mondays. I schedule my work and my life with more focus on working smart rather than working hard.

Do you find testing and injecting a hassle?

Not really. When I’m catering an outside event, or know I’ll be away from my house for the whole day, I take my insulin pen and test machine along. It’s a quick process and it’s become part of life now. I also am not shy about it. All my friends know and I take my shot and test in front of them…and explain what it’s all about if it’s the first time they see it.

How has your diet changed?

  • I avoid all white maize. So, no mealie meal for me.
  • I avoid processed sugar. Although, I do still taste desserts and cakes now and then but it will only be a teaspoon-sized taste.
  • If I drink alcohol, it’s only spirits or red wine only drink with one or two glasses max and always followed up by a bottle of water. I avoid any ciders, beers or cocktails.
  • Three times a day, I have fruit and never all at once. I avoid bananas, grapes and dried fruits. The less ripe the fruit the better.
  • I drink about three litres of water a day.
  • When I can, I source low-GI breads, -rice, -biscuits and -spices.
  • I only eat sugar-free and fat-free yoghurt.
  • Every morning I try have Mabele, if not then I have oats. The fibre and low-GI quality of these two cereals is good for diabetes control.
  • I watch the amount of salt I consume. Pre-mixed spice blends, like BBQ spice, are a no-no.
  • Condiments and overly oily food are also a no.
  • I don’t eat processed meats like sausages, sandwich ham, etc.
  • I have a love/hate relationship with sweeteners. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have an after taste. During my research, I’ve learned a few of these sweeteners aren’t good for you. So, I stay clear.

List the foods that you’ve found spike your blood sugar

  • Very sweet/low fibre fruit, such as strawberries, bananas and watermelon.
  • Popcorn and white starches, like crackers, chips, white bread and white rice.

Since getting diabetes, has it changed your mind-set of making food?

It has changed my mind about needles! Before, I was freaked out by needles and blood. Now I don’t even flinch at them. When I wake up each morning I drink water, prick my finger, do a blood glucose level test and then inject my insulin before having breakfast. It’s a daily routine, it must happen. If I skip breakfast, my sugar levels will plummet to critical levels.

I’ve had to get my mind into the concept of having regular meals throughout the day. Even when I’m not hungry I still eat a fruit or snack (a spoon of peanut butter or crackers). It has also affected how long I stay out if I go out. I can’t have dinner too late at night.

Something I’ve tried to explain over and over to deaf ears is that I’m a chef and the food I post on social media is work and not my lunch. Then people tag me in green, unappetising health-freak posts! I understand it comes from a good place but the information overload is real and sometimes some of the facts on these health-freak sites are incorrect. 

Have you been inspired to make tasty diabetic dishes?

Yes. I’ve always been health conscious in terms of the type of produce I use. Fresh and seasonal has always been a mantra for me but now I’ve become even more vigilant about ingredients and products I use.

I have been playing around with diabetic friendly recipes and dishes. More to keep myself away from the usual bland and boring stuff people normally associate with diabetic-friendly diets. I’ve been asked to put together a diabetes focused cookbook, which will focus on African taste.

Are you the designated cook in your household?

I live alone so I have no choice but when my girlfriend is around, we take turns.

What’s next on the table?

Currently, I do private events and functions. I also own a culinary business that does monthly classes and monthly chef’s table. Soon, I will be releasing my own product range. My first cookbook is coming out in October and there is a TV show in the pipeline for later this year.


Laurelle Williams is the Editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Feel free to email Laurelle on [email protected]