The days are getting shorter, the trees have lost their leaves, and department stores have already begun the endless loops of annoyingly catchy holiday tunes. Once again, the holiday season looms large in the near future, and the most organized among us have already started to prepare for family gatherings and gift-giving traditions. While the holidays are meant to be a time to rejoice and come together with loved ones, it’s no secret that planning for the festive season can also bring loads of unwanted stress for the average American.

For diabetic Americans, the holidays can spell out an additional layer of anxiety.  After all, the next few weeks are almost guaranteed to be filled with heaps of sugary treats, carb-laden feasts of binge-worthy proportions, and perhaps one-too-may syrupy eggnog concoctions. For anyone looking to keep an eye on their blood sugar levels, this can seem like an unfair and unwinnable test of one’s willpower and self-restraint.

Fortunately, we’ve prepared a list of helpful habits and practices that may help people with diabetes enjoy the festive frivolities without fear. Ensure you discuss your diabetes-management plan for the holiday season with your healthcare professional so you can stay happy and healthy this winter.

Holidays Can Be Difficult for Diabetics

One of the most important steps when approaching the holidays for diabetics is to have a firm understanding of the factors that are likely to disrupt your normal diabetes management regimen. This section will flag some of the most common facets of the holiday season that are likely to throw your diabetes management for a loop.

Stress

While sugar intake and diet are often understood as having the most direct impact on blood sugar levels, other biological processes can also have a substantial impact on your body’s blood sugar regulation. Stress is a classic example, and there’s no shortage of it during the holiday season. Your body is programmed to respond to stress as though each stressor is presenting a threat to your safety. As such, it is normal and natural for your body to prepare to respond to the stressor by fleeing the situation or confronting it head-on (what’s often called the “fight-or-flight” response). Part of this response involves mobilizing energy from your energy stores to prepare for the physical or mental exertion involved in dealing with the stressful situation. Because sugar is the body’s energy currency, this can mean that insulin levels drop and blood sugar levels become elevated during stressful periods.

Being mindful of the effects that stress can have on your blood sugar can help you predict and be aware of stressful situations, and help you prepare to deal with those situations accordingly. Worrying about the impact of present shopping on your finances, stressing about finding that perfect gift for your loved one, or even attending certain gatherings can all pose challenges that you should be mindful this season.

woman who is stressed outInactivity

We get it – the holidays are a time to unwind, kick your feet up, and stay warm in your home. But these tendencies can have an unhelpful effect on blood sugar.

As many diabetics likely know, there is a direct relationship between physical activity and blood sugar levels. Typically, though not always, physical exercise can reduce blood sugar levels by causing your body to make use of blood sugar to power your activity. The flip side of this effect is that periods of inactivity can nullify the helpful impact of exercise in managing blood sugar.

Food

Every amateur baker and chef looks forward to the holidays as a time to showcase their most scrumptious and decadent culinary creations. Unfortunately for diabetics, the constant presence of these treats can serve as a huge source of temptation to indulge in ways that can be difficult to manage from a diabetic perspective. Below, we discuss some tips to approach the holidays with a plan for keeping your nibbling in check.

Plate of Christmas Cookies

Strategies for navigating the holiday season

Stay active

As we alluded to above, inactivity can be a significant source of difficulty over the holidays. Fortunately, the solution is simple (though not necessarily easy). While your instincts may tell you to stay sedentary over the holidays, there are plenty of fun ways to enjoy the winter season while also staying physically active.

Look for fun and festive activities to incorporate into your holiday traditions. Whether that involves lacing up your ice skates and heading to the local pond, hitting the slopes with friends, heading to the trails on cross-country skis, or launching an impromptu snowball assault with the kids, there are plenty of ways to stay active without making it feel like a chore. Even something as simple and wholesome as building a snowman can be a great way to get your heart rate up while also making memories that will last a lifetime.

For people in warmer climates, there are just as many (if not more!) opportunities to stay active this season. Take advantage of the time off from work or school to hit the beach, take a nice scenic hike with the family, or go door-to-door caroling to spread some holiday cheer. The most important part of being successful in this regard is to prioritize activity and find creative ways to build exercise into the time you spend with friends and loved ones.

While exercise can help lower blood sugar levels, this is not always the case, and some activities (particularly short and intense bursts of activity) can actually spike your blood sugar. For more information on the relationship between exercise and blood sugar, be sure to speak to your doctor.

Female exercising

Stock up

A great part of being off for the holidays is the time off from work; a not-so-great part of the holidays is that many of the services you rely on may also be operating at a reduced capacity during this time. In addition, sudden snow storms and poor road conditions can add up to not always being able to head to the pharmacy to re-fill your prescriptions or pick up diabetes supplies.

To pre-empt any disasters that might arise from being stranded from much-needed resources, be sure to stock up on all of the supplies you might need for the season well in advance. This could include insulin, testing supplies, and whatever other resources you might need to take care of yourself over the holidays.

Glocose meter and lancets | Diabetes Supplies

Stay vigilant about monitoring blood sugar

Despite exercising caution, it’s not unlikely that your blood sugar will fluctuate over the holidays in ways that are outside the norm. Increasing the frequency with which you monitor your blood sugar can add a layer of caution by allowing you to be aware of, and quickly respond to, unexpected episodes of low or high blood sugar before they get out of hand.

Man testing with glucometer

Make healthy food choices

While we wish we could tell you that we have a secret formula that will allow you to eat as many candy canes and gingerbread cookies as you want without facing the consequences, the unfortunate reality is that you will need to be deliberate and thoughtful about your food intake this season. We recommend setting strict guidelines for yourself in anticipation of holiday dinners and gatherings where treats are likely to be served.

One strategy you might consider employing is to fill up on the less carb-rich foods that are typically part of a holiday meal. For example, you might compromise by deciding to forego the mashed potatoes and dinner rolls in favor of an extra helping of lean turkey meat or fibrous vegetables like green beans (but don’t forget that many vegetables can have significant levels of carbs, like squash). Be mindful that many seemingly low-carb foods like turkey can often be coated in sweet glazes or sauces. If in doubt, ask the chef about the recipes they used in preparing the meal.

woman choosing between eating an apple or donut

Be cautious with alcohol

Cookies, candy, and baked goods are all obvious sources of sugar. Perhaps less obvious is the variety of alcoholic beverages that you may be offered at your next gathering. People often forget that alcoholic beverages, particularly those served with syrupy mixers and liqueurs, can be full to the brim with carbohydrates and simple sugars.

This doesn’t mean alcohol is strictly off-limits, but moderation may be the best plan of action. And, don’t forget, not all beverages are created equal. Clear liquors are preferable over darker ones, as they tend to be less calorie-dense. Mixers like soda water or diet soda can also serve as healthier substitutes for sugary juices and syrups. Opting for these selections can help you limit your carbohydrate intake if you decide to partake in alcoholic drinks this season.

Diabetes aside, it may be prudent to limit your alcohol intake in general. DUIs are much more common over the holidays, and not a small number of family altercations could be avoided by sobriety. For all these reasons and more, deconstructing the association between alcohol and holiday celebrations, and enjoying alcohol responsibly, are sure to be healthy and smart choices in the long run.

People celebrating at Christmas party

Be mindful of contagious diseases

Recent years have posed unique challenges to people’s health and well-being, diabetics and non-diabetics alike. COVID-19 is an obvious risk to be aware of as you head to large indoor gatherings where guests are likely to be packed closely together and sharing the same air. Other seasonal illnesses, like the flu or the common cold, commonly increase in prevalence around this time of year.

While caution is always warranted with respect to these illnesses, it is perhaps especially critical for people with diabetes. An unfortunate reality of this condition is that it can detrimentally impact your immune system, leaving you more prone to infectious diseases than a person without diabetes. Getting a flu shot or a COVID-19 booster dose are simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of falling ill this season. Be sure to also stay on top of your vitamin intake and be attentive to how you are feeling. If you start feeling run-down, maybe consider sitting out any large functions until you are back to 100%.

Male senior with face mask

Conclusion

There is no reason for diabetic people to look to the holidays with dread and apprehension. Employing the tips in this article can form part of a prudent plan towards keeping your diabetes in check this season, and can help you stress less and enjoy all the joy and happiness with friends and family that the holidays have to offer. Remember to check in with your healthcare team before making any changes to your diabetes management plan, and to ensure you are equipped with the tools to stay healthy this winter.