The holidays can be a difficult time for those with dietary restrictions, specifically individuals with diabetes. With Thanksgiving coming up, we will discuss in this article how to manage your diabetes effectively with diet and other methods.

How food affects blood sugar

Food influences your blood sugar levels primarily through carbohydrates. When you eat food with carbs, your digestive system breaks the carbohydrates down into sugar. From there, the sugar moves into the bloodstream. This is what we refer to as “blood sugar”.

In response to rising blood sugar levels, your pancreas releases insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates how blood sugar is used for energy or storage. Cells begin to take up the blood sugar, causing a decrease in blood sugar levels. Afterward, the pancreas will also start producing glucagon, a different hormone that makes the liver release stored sugar. These processes work together to maintain a balanced blood sugar level throughout the body.

How diabetes affects blood sugar

Type 2 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to produce sufficient amounts of insulin or the inability to respond to insulin properly. In the case of insulin resistance, your blood sugar and insulin concentrations remain increased even after you eat. Eventually, your body will stop making insulin.

Carbohydrates are particularly important to consider when dealing with diabetes. There are several types of carbs, and some are better for diabetes than others. Selecting the right carbs is important both for your daily diet and for those special occasions – including Thanksgiving.

How to think about carbohydrates

Simple versus complex carbs

Carbohydrates have been traditionally grouped into either simple or complex carbs. These are as follows:

  • Simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates have basic chemical structures, meaning they either have one sugar (known as monosaccharides) or two sugars (known as disaccharides). The body digests and leverages simple carbohydrates quickly because of their basic structure, causing the pancreas to rapidly release insulin and blood sugar from the pancreas. These quick rises in blood sugar levels have a negative impact on your health, specifically for diabetes.
  • Complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates have more than just one or two sugars, meaning they take longer to digest and break down. Thus, blood sugar increases at a slower rate, making them a better option for diabetes. In addition, complex carbs also tend to be more nutritionally dense, having things like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Glycemic index

The glycemic index is a way to quantify how simple or complex a carbohydrate is, relating to how quickly it increases blood sugar levels post-meal. They are as follows:

  • High glycemic foods. These have a rating of 70 to 100. High glycemic index foods are digested quickly, resulting in quick increases. These can elevate your risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, infertility, and more.
  • Low glycemic foods. These have a rating of less than 55. Low glycemic index foods are digested more slowly, resulting in steadier increases. These can improve diabetes, help you lose weight, and cause anti-inflammatory effects.

Glycemic load

Another important aspect of carbohydrates is the glycemic load. Glycemic load considers the glycemic index while also incorporating the actual amount of carbohydrate that it contains. Research indicates that lower glycemic loads are beneficial to diabetes versus higher glycemic loads. Examples of food from each are included below:

  • High glycemic load foods: Kidney/black beans, cashews/peanuts, apples/oranges, lentils, and carrots
  • Low glycemic load foods: White rice, white flour pasta, candy, potato

The importance of diet in diabetes

Knowing how carbohydrates affect diabetes emphasizes the importance of a proper diet in managing diabetes. A good diet is a major pillar to controlling diabetes, and in fact, is recommended in adjunct to diabetes medications along with exercise.

Eating right and exercising regularly helps to maintain blood sugar in the right range. With regards to food, picking the right foods, eating at the right times, and managing your portions all contribute to your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.

With this in mind, you can work to incorporate the right foods with the best benefits into your diet. However, eating healthy can become particularly challenging during the holidays. With the influx of get-togethers and the variety of enticing foods, it can be difficult to stick to a healthy diet. In the rest of this article, we will dive into tips for managing your diabetes during the holidays, particularly during Thanksgiving.

Picking foods during the holidays

There are several strategies for approaching the holidays with diabetes. We will discuss these below:

  • Have a strategy. Walking into a holiday party without a game plan is sure to end up in disaster. Try to plan out what you will eat beforehand. Start by asking the host what food will be there. If no or limited healthy options will be available, offer to bring a few dishes that are diabetes-friendly.
  • Focus on the right foods. When presented with several options, opt for the ones that are beneficial for blood sugar. Reach for the veggies and protein and minimize carb intake. Be sure to also manage your portions. With a typical plate, half of it should contain non-starchy vegetables. One quarter should be a source of protein and the other a starch or grain.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand. The last thing you want to do is deprive yourself of food during the holidays if there is a lack of options. It is always a good idea to keep some diabetes-friendly snacks on hand to help fuel you through the celebration if you need them. Consider bringing some nuts, raw veggies, or fresh fruit along with you just in case. Snacking on these before a meal can also help you control your cravings and portions when it comes to the main course.
  • Keep your goals in mind. Whenever you are tempted to indulge in a non-diabetes-friendly food, consider the big picture. Managing your blood sugar and diabetes will help you avoid long-term complications that would normally affect your well-being, quality of life, and survival. Keeping this in mind and abiding by your goals will ultimately lead you to a path of better health, making short-term decisions regarding food and lifestyle easier to make.

Thanksgiving foods for diabetes

Thanksgiving is known for its delicious food, including turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and more. Unfortunately, not all of these foods are beneficial for your health and diabetes. To help you manage these options, we have put together a do’s and don’ts list below for common Thanksgiving foods.

  • Do’s – These foods get the OK from a diabetes standpoint
    • Roasted turkey
    • Plenty of non-starchy vegetables
  • Don’ts – Try to avoid these foods or at the very least, keep them minimal
    • White bread
    • Stuffing
    • Mashed potatoes
    • Soda

What else can I do to manage my diabetes during the holidays?

Keep moving

Another way to help manage your diabetes is via physical activity. Exercise has many health benefits, including the following advantages:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased blood sugar
  • Better move
  • Increased blood flow
  • Better sleep
  • Burning calories/weight loss
  • Improved memory

If you are obese or overweight, integrating regular exercise into a lower-calorie diet can supplement your diabetes management routine. Most experts recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity five days a week. The best way to do this is via aerobic exercise, which is defined as an activity that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe harder. Aerobic exercise can include hiking, walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, climbing stairs, or playing certain sports.

Sticking to a workout routine during the holidays can be particularly challenging during such a busy time. You may be traveling, out of your routine, or hosting family and friends. While you should still attempt to prioritize physical activity, there are a few small ways that you can integrate movement into your day-to-day:

  • Go on a walk outside. You can invite family or friends to join.
  • Take the stairs as opposed to an elevator.
  • Do active chores around the house and yard, prioritizing things that will keep you moving such as cleaning the house or gardening.

Stay consistent with your medication

Getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays can also make you forgetful when it comes to taking your medication. Whether you are on an oral blood sugar lowering medication, insulin, or both, these treatments are essential to managing your blood sugar long term. Consistent treatment is paramount in controlling blood sugars and is especially important during the holiday months when you may be indulging more than usual.

Unfortunately, it is estimated that 41 to 57 percent of people on insulin are not adherent to their medication, meaning they do not take it consistently as directed. Non-adherence can worsen diabetes, leading to a slew of complications, including cardiovascular, vision, nerve, kidney, and foot problems.

To make sure you are abiding by your medication regimen during the holidays, consider these tips:

  • If you are traveling, make sure you are well-stocked with all of your medications, so you do not run out while away from home.
  • Again, if you are traveling, make sure you are properly storing your medication at the right temperature.
  • Set timers or reminders on your phone to help you remember to take your medication, even when you are out and about or busy.

Key Takeaways

  • Carbohydrate Management: Understanding the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is crucial for managing diabetes, especially during food-centric holidays like Thanksgiving.
  • Glycemic Index and Load: Choosing foods with a low glycemic index and load can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, which is particularly important when faced with a variety of holiday dishes.
  • Strategic Eating: Planning your meals and having a strategy for holiday gatherings can prevent overindulgence in high-carb foods that spike blood sugar levels.
  • Healthy Options: Opting for non-starchy vegetables and lean proteins over processed carbs and sugars can help keep blood sugar in check during festive meals.
  • Snack Smart: Keeping diabetes-friendly snacks on hand can curb cravings and help maintain portion control during holiday feasts.
  • Long-term Health Goals: Remembering the long-term impact of diabetes management can help resist temptations and make healthier food choices during the holidays.
  • Thanksgiving Do’s and Don’ts: Prioritize diabetes-friendly Thanksgiving foods like roasted turkey and non-starchy vegetables, and minimize or avoid white bread, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and sugary drinks.
  • Physical Activity: Integrating regular exercise, even simple activities like walking or household chores, can offset some of the indulgences of holiday eating.
  • Medication Adherence: The holidays can disrupt routines, so it’s important to stay consistent with diabetes medication, setting reminders if necessary.
  • Preparation is Key: When traveling for the holidays, ensure you have enough medication and store it properly to avoid any interruptions in your diabetes management plan.