Food is a natural part of the holiday season, so it’s especially important for diabetics to develop a plan to navigate the cornucopia of culinary temptations.
“There are things that always come up in your life—weddings, birthdays, parties—but nothing is more challenging than Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Anne Daly, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition and diabetes education at the Springfield (Ill.) Diabetes & Endocrine Center. “You do want to build in some special foods and prioritize what’s important to you. But keep your blood glucose front and center.”
The key is to plan ahead, says Daly, a past president of Health Care and Education for the American Diabetes Association. “Say, ‘I’m not going to let the holidays control me; I’m going to take control of this. I’m going to think ahead,’” she says.
Developing family and peer support is helpful, which is easier since healthy-eating tactics for diabetics are healthy for anyone. A typical Thanksgiving meal can total 3,500 or 4,000 calories, but Daly says there are simple ways to dramatically reduce that number. For example, choose white meat instead of dark meat from the turkey; cook dressing outside the bird; make mashed potatoes with skim milk or chicken broth rather than cream; serve steamed vegetables rather than fat-laden casseroles; and watch the gravy! One cup of regular gravy has a whopping 800 calories.
For both diabetics and those who entertain diabetics for holiday meals, healthier cooking options exist. Dress up sweet potatoes with small amounts of pineapple juice or apple juice instead of butter or brown sugar. Make pies without the crust. When baking, use less sugar and increase the use of sweet-tasting spices and flavorings such as cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. For more options, peruse cookbooks for diabetics and try recipes that include lighter versions of traditional holiday fare.
Enjoy sugary treats in moderation, and remember that sweets are not the only foods that increase blood sugar levels. All carbohydrates—including those in fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy foods and starchy foods—elevate blood sugar. Eat a variety of healthy foods. Think low-fat and sugar-free.
Daly offers diabetics these holiday meal tips:
• Talk with family members in advance and enlist their support. Tell them your goal is to keep your blood sugar level in the optimal range.
• Schedule your holiday meal for later in the day. When meals are served at noon or in the early afternoon, people tend to eat a second full meal at dinnertime.
• Make a list of “must-have” foods—for example, Mom’s famous sugar cookies—and figure out how to include them in your eating plan. You may have to cut back on other foods or adjust medication. Consulting a registered dietitian or your physician can help.
• Think about your family’s typical holiday meal. Ask what’s going to be on the menu and determine if there are any dishes you can eat heartily. Opt for vegetables and fruits, or volunteer to bring a tray of raw vegetables or shrimp cocktail.
• Offer to host the family dinner, which gives you more control over the menu. Even if it’s a potluck, provide relatives with your healthy recipes, which have benefits for everyone.
• Send leftovers home with guests.
• If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit yourself to one or two drinks and include them in your holiday calorie plan. Tea and club soda are healthier options.
• Monitor your blood sugar more often than usual. The recommended pre-meal range is 90 to 130, the post-meal peak should be less than 180 and, two hours later, the reading should be less than 140.
“What you want to do is learn from year to year,” Daly says. “Look back and think to yourself what worked and what didn’t.”
And don’t forget to enjoy yourself. After all, it’s the holidays!