When you have diabetes, the holiday season feels like a carbohydrate minefield. Pecan pie, rolls, fudge, candied yams, stuffing — the list goes on and on and on.
Keeping blood sugars steady through November and December might seem impossible sometimes. But practicing good nutrition and exercise habits — some that are tailored to diabetes, some that are just good for everyone — can help you feel a lot better physically, mentally and emotionally during the holiday season.
We talked to Banner Health’s Christopher Okeke, an exercise physiologist, and Tiffone Powers-Parker, a dietician nutritionist, about how people with diabetes can best navigate their holiday eating and exercise. Having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself and it doesn’t mean your A1C will be doomed during the holiday months either.
Tip #1: Diversify your carbs
Calculating your insulin during big holiday meals, it’s easy to forget that these meals are actually pretty diverse, carb-wise. After all, soda will affect your blood sugar differently than mashed potatoes will.
Powers-Parker outlined the three main types of carbs/sugars you’ll see in these meals:
- Natural: Shows up in fruit or milk, and in added sugars like soda or packaged goods.
- Starches: Wheat, oats and grains; starchy vegetables (corn and potatoes); dried beans, lentils and peas.
- Fiber: The part of plant foods that isn’t digested.
“Remember that sugars and starches will raise your blood sugar, but fiber doesn’t,” Powers-Parker noted. With that in mind, dose your mealtime insulin accordingly.
Try to avoid eating meals or snacks that focus only on carbohydrates, especially carbs with no nutritional value. Carbs with a high glycemic index (breads, grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, desserts) can cause your blood sugar to spike. Mixing in protein, fat and fiber slows the digestive process, and helps those carbs gradually absorb into your bloodstream. Powers-Parker recommended having ¼ of your plate be foods like legumes, whole grains and dark vegetables. Your blood sugar will thank you for these complex carbohydrates.
Tip #2: Alcohol is (usually) okay, in moderation
Having diabetes does make alcohol consumption trickier. For example, drinking can lower your blood glucose for up to 24 hours and drinking too much can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hypoglycemia unawareness. Your other medications and overall health should influence your decision making here.
The American Diabetes Association outlined these helpful guidelines for drinking with diabetes: Women with diabetes shouldn’t exceed one drink per day, and men shouldn’t exceed two drinks per day (12 ounces of beer, eight ounces of malt liquor, five ounces of wine, four ounces of champagne or 1.5 ounces of liquor or distilled spirits such as vodka, rum or whiskey).
Powers-Parker also suggested the following steps:
- Talk with your doctor about drinking, to learn tips and tricks that work for you.
- If you drink alcohol, always eat some food with it. This will help you avoid low blood sugar.
- Check your blood sugar more often the day you drink, and the next day, to see how alcohol affects you.
- If you drink, then choose low calorie options:
- light beer instead of regular
- dry red or white wine instead of sweet wines
- half wine with half seltzer to create a wine spritzer
- drinks made with sugar-free mixers like diet tonic water or diet soda.
- Avoid high-calorie drinks like liqueurs, margaritas, piña coladas, mudslides, drinks made with creams and full-sugar sodas.
Tip #3: Plan ahead
For people with diabetes, there aren’t any foods or drinks that are always off limits. It’s really about portion control and planning ahead.
If your holiday meal is buffet-style, for example, walk through the entire spread before loading up your plate. In other words, know what you’re getting yourself into. If you can, do this a little while before the meal actually starts, and give your insulin dose 15-30 minutes before you eat.
If a holiday meal is going to be too carb-heavy for you — and just too tempting — you can always eat a meal on your own before joining the group. That way you aren’t persuaded to binge. Or you can find out what’s on the menu beforehand and bring a dark leafy vegetable and/or other diabetes friendly foods.
In all cases, test your blood sugar often, before and after the meal. This will help you feel better physically and give you peace of mind. Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) have made this a lot easier than it used to be.
Tip #4: Take a walk
After you’ve eaten a big holiday meal, you may feel compelled to loosen your belt and take a load off. That rest isn’t bad — eventually. However, Okeke recommended taking a brisk walk right after you eat. This will ease the blood sugar spike that often happens after high-carb meals. It’ll also help burn some calories and minimize heartburn and acid reflux.
If, for whatever reason, you’re tempted to do a really high-intensity workout right after you’ve eaten, you’re better off waiting a few hours. Doing that big workout the morning of your holiday meal, or even a day or two before, is also a good option.
Tip #5: Build exercise habits
Planning to have a healthy holiday begins well before the season does. If you build regular exercise habits earlier in the year, then doing it during the holidays won’t seem so difficult, Okeke said.
He also recommended recruiting friends or family members to exercise with you. “That way there’s someone in your inner circle that can hold you accountable, and motivate you to keep with your exercise routine, and vice versa.”
Tip #6: Prioritize your mental/emotional health
The holidays can be stressful. Our seasonal schedule overflows with errands, deadlines and social obligations, and our personal wellbeing often takes a back seat. Okeke pointed out that mental/emotional health is health, just as much as physical health. Dedicating regular time for exercise helps you stay grounded.
Okeke also recommended mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. By checking on ourselves, we can reduce how much cortisol our body releases. Cortisol is a stress hormone that comes from our adrenal glands, which activates our “fight-or-flight” response.
Stress management is crucial for people with diabetes, as stress can really throw your blood sugar out of whack.
So yes, this holiday season is a lot — carbs notwithstanding. But it’s also a time for reunion, reflection and joy. By practicing good nutrition and exercise habits before, during and after the festivities, you’ll position yourself to fully enjoy everything the season offers.
To get additional 1-on-1 advice regarding your diabetes, visit bannerhealth.com to schedule a visit.
If you’d like to learn more, check out these related articles written with help from Banner Health experts.
- Seniors with Diabetes: Here’s the Best Way to Plan Your Meals
- Is Your Blood Sugar Stable? Why 'Glycemic Variability' Matters
- How a Continuous Glucose Monitor Can Help Control Your Diabetes