How can I keep my diabetes under control during the holidays?

If you have diabetes, you’re guaranteed to face some tough choices about food throughout the holiday season. The overabundance of food and drink can be tricky to navigate when you’ve got your blood sugar to worry about.

Say your diabetes is fairly well controlled, so what’s the harm of indulging a little? Take caution that you don’t overindulge too often or for too long. Even if your diabetes is under control, poor diet choices can result in health consequences or an unexpected visit to the doctor. Whether you’ve coped with the disease for a while or you’re newly diagnosed, these holiday tips from WVU Medicine endocrinologist Adnan Haider, MD, will help you keep your blood sugar levels balanced during the holidays. 

1. Plan ahead.
If you’re going to someone’s house for a holiday meal, ask about the menu ahead of time and make choices about what you’re going to eat and how much you’ll allow yourself to have. Ask if you can bring a dish that provides a healthier option. Make sure you have all diabetes supplies and medications with you if you’re traveling or leaving the house for an extended period of time. Carry some healthy snacks with you, like mixed nuts, apple slices, or carrot sticks, in case you end up feeling hungry between meals or holiday events.

2. Try to stick to your schedule.
Make an effort to start your day, eat, exercise, and take your diabetes medications close to the regular time. You might be eating a meal earlier or later than normal, so eat a snack before leaving home to make sure you don’t get too hungry and eat foods you should avoid.

3. Add some healthy food prep to your meal planning.
If you’re hosting a dinner or gathering, consider these healthier alternatives:

  • Always buy lean cuts of meat and choose a healthy cooking method, like broiling, roasting, stir-frying, or grilling.
  • Season foods, like meats and steamed vegetables, with herbs and spices (like pepper, cinnamon, and oregano), vinegar, lemon juice, or salsa instead of salt, butter, or sugary sauces.
  • When baking, opt for unsweetened applesauce or bananas instead of butter.
  • Cut the sugar in recipes, or opt for yogurt and fruit instead of a pie.
  • Opt for seltzer, water with fresh fruit slices, unsweetened iced tea, coffee, or a diet drink.

4. Check your blood sugar more often.
Monitor your blood sugar more than you regularly do as you’ll probably be operating outside of your routine during the holidays. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends a glucose level of 80-130 mg/dl (milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood) before you eat a meal and below 180 mg/dl after a meal.

5. Eat mindfully.
Before you begin to fill your plate, pause and think about the selections available on the table. Make decisions about the foods you really want and the foods you’ll skip. Think about how each food choice will help you or affect you otherwise. If a dessert can't be missed, balance the rest of the meal by cutting out potatoes, corn, and bread and filling up on greens and protein instead.

Don’t linger near the buffet table for very long to limit any temptations to eat mindlessly. Slow down and notice how each bite looks, tastes, and smells. Put your fork down between bites and chew your food more times before swallowing. This will aid digestion, too.

6. Drink alcohol in moderation.
Having too much to drink can lead to hypoglycemia or low blood sugar (glucose) if you’re diabetic, because alcohol blocks the production of glucose in the liver. The same guidelines apply to people with diabetes as those who do not have the disease: Women should have no more than one drink per day, and men should have no more than two drinks per day. If you’re going to drink, make sure you check your blood sugar before, during, and after you drink.

7. Treat yourself to other forms of enjoyment besides food.
Dress yourself in clothing that’s comfortable and flattering, so you feel good. Engage in meaningful conversation and really listen to what the other person is saying instead of waiting to reply. Share some photos from past holiday celebrations that will make you and your family laugh. Spend time playing with kids in your family. Go for a brisk walk after dinner and ask your family members to join you.

8. Live and learn.
If you get caught up in the moment and things don’t work out as you had hoped, take some time to think about what you might do differently for the next holiday event. Forgive yourself and focus on the new day ahead. Bump up your exercise routine to help diminish some of the side effects of overindulgence and get you back on track.

Make an appointment with a WVU Medicine provider to talk about diabetes management during the holidays and year round: 855-WVU-CARE.