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Plan Ahead for Diabetes-Friendly Holidays

By Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, Scripps Health

The holiday season may be “the most wonderful time of the year” for celebrating with family and friends—but if you or your family members are among the 26 million Americans who have diabetes, the challenge of navigating holiday parties, meals and sweet treats can leave you feeling less than joyful.

There’s no need to let diabetes get in the way of your festivities. What’s the key to enjoying the holidays and successfully managing your disease? Planning ahead.

Start with your attitude. If you approach the holidays with worry and anxiety about what to eat and drink, change your focus. Think of the holidays as time spent with loved ones. There’s no rule that says your get-togethers always have to involve food. In San Diego, we are fortunate to be able to spend the holiday season outdoors. Go window-shopping at the malls, take a walk on the beach, or meet for coffee or tea.

Have a strategy for parties and dinners. Avoid skipping meals on the day of the party in order to “save” calories or carbs for the feast later in the day; this can make it difficult to keep your blood glucose under control. In fact, consider having a healthy snack before you leave for the party. This helps keeps your hunger in check and reduces the likelihood of overeating.

Also, think about which foods you really enjoy—especially those which are generally served only during the holidays. If cornbread stuffing is something you look forward to every year, pass on “everyday” carbs like dinner rolls or crackers. This can be especially helpful at buffets and potlucks. Survey the entire selection before you place anything on your plate, and decide what you truly want to have.

If you plan to have dessert, compensate by cutting a carbohydrate from your main meal. Often, just a bite or two of a sweet food is all it takes to satisfy your taste buds. Share a dessert or ask for a small piece of pie. Remember, you can enjoy tastes of high-sugar or high-carb treats as long as you don’t overdo it. The total amount you consume is more important to controlling your diabetes than individual items.

One way to ensure you have a healthy dish available is to offer to bring one. Substitute low-fat ingredients for full-fat versions, and artificial sweeteners for sugar. (Be careful about using fruit puree instead of oil, as this adds carbohydrates.) Search online for diabetes-friendly versions of traditional favorites such as roasted autumn vegetables or pumpkin cheesecake. Keep your portion sizes reasonable, eat slowly, and focus on the smell, flavor and texture. You may find you enjoy your meal more, feel full sooner, and won’t want to go back for seconds.

Planning ahead goes for drinks as well as food. Whether you’re toasting with champagne or drinking eggnog by the fire, remember to include those carbs and calories in your overall total, and keep a close eye on your blood glucose level.

Another key to staying on track this time of year is getting plenty of exercise. The hectic pace of the season may make it more difficult to stick to an exercise routine, so schedule time for physical activity every day. Not only does it help control your weight and keep your heart healthy, exercise is an excellent antidote for seasonal stress. Create a support system of friends or relatives who have diabetes or who are simply trying to watch their weight. Plus, making a date with a friend for a walk or a game of tennis is a great way to get together when everyone is juggling holiday commitments.

Need help planning for meals, travel or other holiday concerns? Talk to your physician or diabetes educator, especially if you have to adjust your medication times or amounts.

Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, is corporate vice president of the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff at Scripps. For a referral to a Scripps physician, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS.