For diabetics, the holiday season is fraught with temptations. Candy is everywhere. Your well-meaning co-workers bring in plates of cookies that taunt you from the break room. You've got invitations to party after party where it seems like the foods were chosen either to test your will or spite you.
But before you decide to give everyone a piece of coal and hibernate through the holidays, you should know that being diabetic doesn't mean you have to give up your favorite seasonal foods.
"During the holidays, don't deprive yourself for heaven's sake," says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, a consulting expert with WebMD and the author of Tell Me What to Eat if I Have Diabetes: Nutrition You Can Live With. "If there's something you want to eat during the holidays, whether it's English toffee or rum balls or what have you, you can eat it. You've just got to plan ahead."
Joining in the Fun
Although sweets are often considered a diabetic's worst enemy, managing diabetes is more complicated than simply avoiding sugar. For instance, other carbohydrates -- like a serving of mashed potatoes -- can cause a surge in blood sugar just like a candy bar. It's the total number of carbohydrates that counts and not the form you're eating them in. Fat, which abounds in holiday cooking, should also be kept to a minimum.
So what should you be eating during the holidays? "As at any time of the year, you should be eating a healthy, balanced diet low in saturated fat," says Gene Barrett, MD, of the department of internal medicine at the University of Virginia. He also stresses that you should be getting a good amount of fiber and complex carbohydrates.
That can be tricky during the holidays. But neither Barrett or Magee says you need to eliminate foods, since a good meal plan balances different types foods and outlaws none.
While the holidays are a time when you have less control over what food is put in front of you, you've still got control over what you actually choose to eat. Don't allow the usual high-fat and high-sugar holiday party fare to take you by surprise. If you're going to a party or a holiday meal, go prepared.
- Know your own limits. "Every diabetic is different," says Magee, "and you need to figure out the balance of different foods that works for you." Although counting grams every day may be difficult, you should have a general sense of what combinations of carbohydrates, fats, and fiber work.
- Try to anticipate the kind of food that you'll encounter at a party. For instance, if you know that your mom is making a favorite pie for dessert, plan your meals and medication during the day accordingly so that you can have a slice. You don't have to deny yourself if you think ahead.
- If you're really concerned that there won't be food at a party that you can eat, consider eating a snack beforehand.
- Another good alternative is to bring a dish with you that you know you can eat. Given that there are 17 million diabetics in America, there are a number of recipes and cookbooks for people with diabetes. In general, consider reducing sugar or using a sugar replacement in sweets and use pureed fruit as a substitute for fat in baked goods. Your host will surely appreciate the gesture, and you'll be able to relax knowing that you won't go hungry.
Once you're at a holiday meal or party, overeating is pretty easy to do, especially since the rest of the guests are often overindulging. However, Magee and Barrett tell WebMD that you shouldn't let yourself lose control.
- Beware what Barrett calls "unconscious eating," the tendency we all have to absent-mindedly take a cookie or a piece of candy from a dish as we pass by. A little here and there can add up quickly.
- Say "no" to seconds, and pay attention to the details. "Remember, you can control how much gravy someone's putting on your plate, or whether you're getting turkey skin or not," says Magee.
- Avoid or limit alcohol. In addition to raising your blood sugar, Barrett says that alcohol can interact with diabetes medications.
- Test yourself. "If ever there is a time to be religious about taking your blood sugars," says Magee, "it's during the holidays." Because you may be eating more and eating foods that you don't normally have, it's especially important to keep track of your levels.
- For a lot of people during the holidays, lounging in front of a football game on TV is about as close as they get to physical fitness. That's not good for anyone, and it's especially bad for diabetics. Magee suggests making exercise social during the holidays. "Grab a favorite sibling or a friend and go out for a walk," she says. "It's a great way to catch up."
- Mistakes happen, and you may wind up eating in a way that you shouldn't. But don't let one instance of overeating cause you to give up and indulge in a lost weekend of excess. If you've fallen off the wagon, Barrett says, you've just got to pick yourself up quickly and get back to your plan.
Sticking to the Plan
Staying in control may be difficult and exhausting during the holidays, especially when no one else is. Holidays are trying times for many, and the extra hassle of having to always be so careful about what you eat may get you down, or make you feel cut off from others. However, using some of the tips above will help you enjoy the holidays along with everyone else.
In addition, it's worth remembering that the consequences of going off your meal plan are often not only long-term, but immediate. "When diabetics are off their program," says Magee, "whether their blood sugar is up or down, they know it. They feel sick."
So even though planning ahead may sometimes be a chore, having a healthy holiday is the best way to assure a festive one.