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Making healthy food choices for the holidays: What people with diabetes need to know

Written By: Vicki Powers, UT Physicians | Updated: November 21, 2023
Grandmother next to two children at Thanksgiving table.

Planning can help people with diabetes eat with intention over the holidays, versus mindless eating. Schedules are important, too.

Mindset for holiday meals: enjoy them. That’s according to Ann Redwine, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with UT Physicians. She said she doesn’t want people with diabetes to focus on feeling deprived by not getting to eat the things they want.

Ann E. Redwine
Ann E. Redwine, CDE, RD

“Food has great emotional value, and the holidays bring up these emotions, both happy and sad feelings,” Redwine said. “All of that gets together in our brains.”

Planning and strategy can help keep everyone in check. That is critical considering the average American may consume more than 4,500 calories during Thanksgiving, according to the Calorie Control Council.

Make a plan

Redwine’s first piece of advice is to survey the food available at the family dinner or party and make a strategy once you see what’s going to be served.

“If you’re trying to not eat too many carbs and keep your blood sugar from going really high, that’s something to be mindful of when you look at the choices,” Redwine said.

The Plate Method, coined by the American Diabetes Association, is a simple way to help manage blood sugar and create healthy meals. This is an option during the holidays – and every day. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, squash, green beans, carrots, and salad. Fill a quarter of the plate with lean protein, and the last quarter with carbohydrate foods like starchy veggies, whole grains, or fruit.

Full balanced dinner plate
Sectioning a plate in quarters is one way people with diabetes can eat healthier during the holidays.

Redwine supports the Plate Method and encourages her patients to use it to control blood sugar. She also offers other plate strategies during the holidays to ensure people eat with intention, not mindlessly.

  • Make a plan based on what you like to eat the most and skip some of the others, for balance. This ensures you get the things you really want and aren’t wasting carbs on food just because it’s there.
  • Eat a small spoonful of all the things you want to try. Typical holiday menus include either turkey or ham, some kind of vegetables, and maybe a relish tray. Redwine said those items typically don’t have carbs and won’t affect blood sugar.
  • Eat one plate of food and don’t go back for seconds. What determines high blood sugar is the total amount of carbohydrates eaten at one sitting. Getting second portions of favorite items at your next meal or the next day can help keep sugar levels maintained. Spreading it across two meals can help your body handle it better.

Have one dessert

For those dessert people, Redwine said to plan to have a dessert at the holiday meal and just know that your blood sugar is going to go higher that day.

“That doesn’t mean you keep eating desserts every day until the New Year,” Redwine laughed, “because that will definitely cause problems. Eat one at Thanksgiving and one at Christmas.”

Check blood sugar if consuming alcohol

People with diabetes have to be careful when drinking alcohol, said Redwine, because wine, beer, and liquor lower blood sugar the same way their diabetes medication does. This could cause them to become hypoglycemic, when blood sugar becomes too low.

On the other hand, enjoying a mixed drink with a sweet mixer, like a margarita or daiquiri, causes blood sugars to go really high, quickly. But later it will go low. It’s important to realize your blood sugar could be unpredictable the next day because it takes a while to process alcohol.

“People need to keep checking their blood sugar when drinking to see what kind of effect it has on them,” Redwine said.

Stick to a schedule

While the holidays can be crazy and schedules get off, Redwine emphasized the importance of trying to stick to a schedule: to take their diabetes medication, check blood sugar levels, and exercise.

“If you can at least do something, even just walking, it will protect you from really high blood sugar, which can get people into big trouble – even the hospital,” Redwine said.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.