Nine-year-old Xoe Brown knows more about food than most little girls her age. Diagnosed with severe food allergies at the tender age of two, Xoe had to avoid practically everything from citrus to peanuts, bananas to diary, and learned early on the importance of reading food labels and keeping track of what she ate. Ironically, her allergies got better and narrowed down to just a few offending items, but the family quickly learned how valuable her awareness of food labels was when she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age seven.
The family already had experience and great respect for the disease because Xoe’s father, Brandon, found out he had it at age 19. Hoping their little girl would be spared from a lifetime of finger pricks, carbohydrate counting and insulin shots, Brandon and wife Amber went though the shock and self-blame that most parents put themselves through when a child receives the diagnosis. But instead of letting the disease take charge and all the joy out of their lives, the Browns took charge of it.
“Our family loves food,” says Amber. “We love to eat, we love to cook, and we spend a lot of time in the kitchen as a family. Xoe has been reading food labels since the age of four because of her allergies so now we’re just applying that skill to keep her diabetes in control.”
For fun the family engages in food challenges where they compete to make meals out of unusual ingredients. A little chef in her own right, Xoe especially likes to cook omelets and sauces. And when it comes to school lunches, she is on top of it, packing her own brown bag with a variety of low-carb or carefully carb-counted meals. She makes sandwiches with ham and cheese or jam, counts out a determined number of potato chips, or makes cheese and pepperoni cracker snacks to munch on in the lunchroom. Having her carbs measured out, Xoe can then tell the school nurse how much insulin she needs for her midday shot.
“She likes to cook, and she likes to be in charge of her meals; it’s a thing of pride for her,” says Amber. “You cannot take a day off from diabetes. But she owns it, and has become responsible about it.”
Because of frequent work travel and relocations, the Brown family has lived in many places over the last 12 years including Georgia, Maryland, Central and now North Florida. Being on the road a lot can be a challenge, especially with eating out in restaurants. But even then, the Brown family finds help with apps on their smartphones to determine information about food.
Maureen Revels, MSN, RN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator in the Northeast Florida Pediatric Diabetes Center at Wolfson Children’s Hospital says that one of the most important things a child with diabetes can learn is how to read nutrition labels on the foods they eat, a skill that most nine year olds have not yet mastered. As a diabetes educator, Revels teaches children and their parents how to identify the labels on boxes, and how to use the information to determine what they can eat.
“Not a lot of people turn over a box and look at a food label regardless of whether they have the disease, but Xoe is already keyed into how to do that,” says Revels. “That lifts a huge amount of weight off her parent’s shoulders because they know she is educated about it and conscientious about what she eats when she’s at a friend’s house or at school. If a child is able to understand the concept and how to apply the knowledge, that’s a plus.”
Xoe likes to share her experience and knowledge with other children living with diabetes, and even has been a guest on the morning show of a local television station alongside a nutritionist to discuss meal preparation for diabetic kids. Eventually, Amber says, Xoe would like to start a video blog to share with others what it’s like to live with diabetes, and how important it is to have a healthy relationship with food. Her infectious smile, outgoing personality and positive attitude make her a perfect spokesperson.
“Living with Type 1 diabetes is hard but there’s one good thing about having it,” says Xoe. “It makes you stronger. It makes you persevere because of all the challenges.”