A holiday eating guide for people with diabetes

November 30, 2017 Providence Health Team

Successfully managing your diabetes means being vigilant about what foods you eat and when.

Successfully managing your diabetes means being vigilant about what foods you eat and when. With the holidays coming up, the temptation to indulge is everywhere. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations all have the potential to disrupt your hard work and clean diet, but you don’t have to let them. Dr. Liz Stephens, endocrinologist and medical director at Providence Diabetes Education, offers some tips to outsmart the holidays with some ideas that will help your diabetes stay under control throughout the holidays and well into the new year.

Tips for successful diabetes management

  • Plan ahead. The holidays often mean rushing from one place to another, whether you’re gift shopping or seeing family and friends. A busy schedule may incentivize you to grab the quickest option when it comes to meals, but don’t head to the drive-thru just yet. You can prep for a full schedule by planning your meals a week in advance, drawing up a list of recipes or buying all of your groceries in one big haul. One good thing about the changing season is that you’ll have more options for spicing up your meal plans with seasonal produce. “I would highly recommend that you visit the American Diabetes Association’s website for delicious and healthy recipes you can experiment with this year,” says Dr. Stephens. “They give great ideas on what to eat during the holidays.”
  • Consider timing. If you have a regular eating schedule, try to stick to it. When we interrupt our normal eating habits, it affects the way our bodies function. For people with diabetes, not having a snack with your insulin shot could lead to a low blood glucose reaction. Avoid this by eating at your regular time throughout the day, even if it means having a small portion of fruit or vegetables while waiting for your full Thanksgiving meal.
  • Stay active. Cold weather and lack of sunshine may be good reasons to stay inside and keep cozy on the couch, but don’t give in. “Exercise can keep glucose levels stable and keep you feeling good. Remember to walk, move around and take the stairs as often as you can,” suggests Stephens. Staying active can help curb your cravings and improve your mood—an important component of making it through the holidays, especially if you foresee yours as being particularly stressful. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol, notorious for increasing insulin resistance and unhealthy cravings.
  • Check your blood sugar. For people with diabetes taking insulin or medications to help lower blood sugar, be sure to check your blood sugar frequently during the holidays. If you don’t have one already, create a schedule that aligns with your medication. Staying on top of your blood sugar levels will not only keep you in control, but it will also help you make smarter dining choices.
  • Be consistent. The last thing you want is to binge on pumpkin pie and gingerbread. After months of maintaining a strict diet, be kind to your body and ensure you stay consistent. Remember to limit your portion sizes even if you have been waiting all year to try your mother’s signature dish.
  • Consult a physician. Regular diabetes check-ins are always encouraged, but speak to a physician if you’re having particular concerns about managing your diet. He or she will be able to provide you with some tips on what foods to avoid and how to approach the upcoming food-heavy holidays. If you do end up overindulging, your doctor can help provide you a roadmap for getting back on track.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. A lack of sleep can affect you mentally and physically. Prepare for errands and visits with friends by ensuring you get at least eight hours of sleep beforehand. People with diabetes who are sleep deprived often have a hard time controlling their blood sugar and tend to reach for foods that are higher in fat and sugar to make up for lack of energy.
  • Forgive yourself. “This is probably the most important step,” Stephens says. “We spend so much time strategizing and planning, and when things fall through, we get disappointed and assign blame. It’s hard to be perfect with diabetes. You just have to do the best you can. Take a deep breath and keep moving, and don’t let slip-ups ruin your holiday fun!”

Staying smart at a holiday party

All of the above are instrumental in facing the temptations of the holidays head on, but how do you handle food choices when you’re in public or at a party? Sometimes you won’t have control over what’s served, but you will get to decide how much you consume. Stay smart and try following these best practices:

  • Pre-holiday party. “Before a party, have a plan in mind. Try to be thoughtful about food choices, especially where there are lots of snacks. Don’t go into social situations hungry,” advises Stephens. The day of the event, eat a snack beforehand. It may seem counterintuitive to eat before you eat, but consuming whole foods will help you feel fuller and manage any potential cravings you might have at dinner. If your host permits, ask if you can bring along a healthy dish of your own. If that’s not an option, discuss the meal with the host beforehand so you won’t be surprised when you arrive. Knowing exactly what to eat will help you avoid any last-minute pitfalls.
  • Dinner. Always opt for color. Foods such as broccoli, carrots, apples, pears and spiced nuts are almost certainly going to be served, so be sure to reach for them over bread, crackers or pasta. Because carbohydrates convert to glucose within 90 minutes of consumption, try getting your energy from whole foods rather than processed or refined foods. If you can’t make it through the evening without trying your aunt’s mashed potatoes, have a small spoonful instead of a bowl. A note for hosts: “If you’re hosting a party and you know someone has diabetes, choose healthier options,” says Dr. Stephens. “We often frame it as a ‘Diabetic’s Diet,’ but it’s really a diet for everyone. Veggies, fruits and foods low in fat and carbs can benefit everyone. Plus, it helps offset any holiday weight gain.”
  • Dessert. Decide ahead of time which desserts you want to eat. Consider sharing a portion with someone at the table or cutting your portion in half. If you don’t want to be tempted, opt for an evening stroll outside or ask to be excused from the table. Remember, the holidays are the perfect time to practice saying “no, thanks” to poor food choices.
  • Drinks. “Choose water or tea instead of high-sugar drinks like juice or soda,” recommends Stephens. “Water can help fill you up and minimize any chances of sipping on high-calorie beverages.” Skip the punch this year, and when it comes to alcoholic beverages, limit yourself to no more than one or two drinks a day depending on if you’re male or female. Typically, one drink equals about five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and about one ounce of spirits. Alcohol can lower your blood sugar, so be sure to drink on a full stomach and monitor your sugar especially if close to bedtime.

If you need more tips on how to holiday-proof your diabetes this year, visit our Health Library for answers and resources, and be sure to check out our Diabetes Education Center.

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