Expert Advice: Mindful Planning for Your Next Holiday Meal

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By : Suvarna Sheth

Now that the holidays are in full swing, we talk to Susan Watkins, CDE, RD for more helpful tips to help you plan for your next holiday meal, whether it’s for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa.

Q. Are the holidays extra challenging for those with diabetes?

This time of the year can wreak havoc on both your waistline and diabetes. There are holiday parties, gatherings, and functions all around the Christmas season that revolve around food.

Thanksgiving to New Years is often called the national eating season where most people gain at least a few pounds that they never lose, so year after year this adds up!

We also tend to be busier around the holidays making it easier to grab high calorie, processed foods.

Our exercise also goes down as a result. Some ideas for staying on track are, keep exercise high around this time of the year.

Q. What are good ways to incorporate exercise?

Make a special effort to include exercise, whether it’s small bouts or one larger time period.

Walk instead of drive to see those holiday lights! Make it fun – Find different areas with light shows and use it as an excuse to get more steps in!

Be consistent, get some movement in every day, even if it is only a few 15-minute bouts.

Q. What do you advise about diet?

Regarding the diet, buy quick, easy healthy foods to have on hand at work and home. This can help keep you on track during this busy time of year.

Ideas are premade chicken and salad bags, these can make for a quick low-calorie meal.

Pick and choose what parties you will eat at and which ones you will plan to eat ahead. At parties you plan to eat at, ask the host if you can bring an item to share, this way it can ensure you have some healthy choices.

Let yourself have some of your favorites on Christmas Eve and Christmas, but keep it to one meal.

You can include some of your favorites and still balance your calories and carbs by adding in lots of vegetables.

Try having your dessert a few hours or more after your meal, this will help prevent a spike in your blood sugar.

If you are already having carbs at your meal, go for a walk after and then a few hours later dive into a small piece of cake.

If you are on insulin you can talk to your doctor or diabetes educator about how to dose for the extra carbs you plan to eat.

Q. What are some good tips to follow while navigating the buffet tables?

Try not to socialize around the food table, that will lead to nibbling when you are not really hungry.

People often do not realize how much they ate when they are snacking on a bite here and a bite there, but the calories, carbs, and fat add up quickly.

When you are at the buffet table for your meal, keep the balanced plate in mind – ½ vegetables, 1/4th carb, 1/4th protein.

Even if you decide to go back for seconds, always add more vegetables to your plate. This helps you get more volume for fewer calories.

Q. How to deal with alcohol?

Stick with alcohol that doesn’t have all of the added sugar and calories such as margaritas, wine coolers, and daiquiris, etc.

The best choices are wine, beer or liquor mixed with something noncaloric (such as vodka seltzer with lime or lemon).

Alcohol is one of the most misinformed topics when it comes to diabetes.

Most people (even those that have had diabetes for many years) think that is will automatically jump up the blood glucose levels.

But alcohol can also have a lowering effect on the blood sugar,  possibly causing hypoglycemia.

The reason is that your liver normally kicks sugar into the bloodstream as needed, but when your liver is busy breaking down alcohol this process is altered.

The low blood sugar effect of alcohol can happen many hours later, making this dangerous if drinking late at night if you are on insulin or oral medications that also lower the blood sugar.

So the key is to use your meter to determine how alcohol affects you. Also be sure to have a drink with food and not on an empty stomach.

Also, the risks of high or low blood sugar with alcohol increases the more you drink at one sitting. And when you are intoxicated you will often also make poor food choices. So keep a limit on it!

Q. Any Other Tips?

How can someone incorporate some exercise into the day before or after the dinner?

Start the day with exercise, which often will help you want to eat healthier throughout the day.

Exercise is like a magnet it attracts other healthy behaviors. Catch up with family and friends by taking a neighborhood walk after dinner.

The bottom line is you want to enjoy your holiday and the tasty foods that go along with it, but not at the expense of your health.

So try to find a good balance between eating some of your favorites, adding in lots of vegetables and increasing your walking.

This way you can leave the holiday feeling good about yourself and your commitment to your health.


Susan Watkins is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She is the manager of the Center for Health Promotion at St. Joseph Health and the coordinator for St. Joseph’s ADA recognized diabetes program. She also manages their HMR weight program, which has been nationally recognized by U.S. World News and Report as a best, fast weight loss diet in the country for the last 3 years. In addition to diabetes, she creates programs and educates patients on a variety of conditions such as IBS, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver conditions.