Holidays and Diabetes

Following these simple health tips can help you keep your diabetes under control during the holiday season
One Woman Passing a Bowl of Green Beans to Another Woman Across the Holiday Table

Often, people with diabetes feel restricted in what they can eat, and those feelings may be especially strong during the holiday season when parties abound and rich, sugary and salty foods are seemingly everywhere.

Here, Steven Rothschild, MD, a family medicine doctor at Rush University Medical Center, offers 5 tips to help you keep your diabetes under control during the holidays.

1. Lighten up holiday recipes

You'll want to reduce the sugar and other carbohydrates, like white flour, white rice and other processed grains, in your meal.

It's also important to trim the fat. In baking recipes that call for oil, you can usually cut the amount of oil in half, and if you're concerned about how moist the baked product will be, substitute half the amount of oil required with unsweetened apple sauce.

Finally, try using only healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, such as canola or olive oil, when you cook or bake.

2. Let the plate be your guide when making choices

Keep an eye on the amount of food you eat, because eating too much can affect your blood sugar levels. A good rule of thumb for your lean meat portion is that it be about the size of a deck of cards. Carbohydrate servings, such as pasta or rice, should be about the size of a fist.

An easy strategy for portion control is to think of your plate being cut into four sections:

  • Lean protein — should take up one quarter of your plate
  • Carbohydrates (such as grains, pasta and some vegetables like potatoes and corn) — should occupy another quarter of your plate
  • Green vegetables and other nonstarchy vegetables (such as salads, broccoli, green beans, carrots, cauliflower, asparagus, etc.) — should take up the remaining half your plate. Just make sure not to cook those veggies in oil or butter, or drown them in heavy dressings, dips or sauces.

And make mindful choices when preparing your plate.

Pick your favorite high carbohydrate or high fat food and have a reasonable serving of that, but then cut back in other areas. For example, you could decide that you'd like to have a serving of sweet potatoes instead of a serving of bread or mashed potatoes. So you're substituting one carbohydrate for another, not eating both.

3. Exercise at least 30 minutes, five times a week

Don't take a holiday break from physical activity. A regular exercise program can improve blood sugars, decrease the risk of heart disease, and help you lose weight — even at a time when most Americans gain.

You don't have to do 30 minutes at a time, either. If you find yourself crunched for time during the holiday season, try doing two 15-minute workouts or three 10-minute stints.

If you're having trouble exercising because your fitness center or local YMCA is closed due to COVID-19, find ways to keep moving at home.

  • Put on your favorite play list and dance like no one's watching.
  • If it's not too cold or snowy, walk around your neighborhood.
  • Even walking in place will get your heart rate up, and it's easy on the joints.
  • If you aren't able to exercise standing up, try modified chair exercises.
  • Older adults can connect with Rush Generations and sign up for our free virtual fitness classes (we offer Zumba Gold, gentle chair yoga, Tai Chi and more)

However, talk to your health care provider before you start a new exercise program or modify your existing one. He or she may want to do a few tests first.

If you have complications related to your diabetes, like neuropathy or retinopathy, there are certain types of exercise that you should avoid. Tell your doctor what kind of exercise you want to do so adjustments can be made to your medicine schedule or meal plan.

And remember, it's important to check your sugars prior to vigorous exercise.

To help you manage your diabetes, the RUSH Copley Diabetes Center offers free screening on Wednesdays from 8 to 10 a.m. No appointment needed.

4. Manage stress as best you can.

The holidays can be an extremely stressful time for many of us, and they are likely to be especially stressful this year. But stress, both physical and mental, can send your blood sugar levels out of whack.

Consider a virtual stress management workshop to help you learn better coping methods, or try a relaxing activity such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises.

5. Kick the cigarette habit. 

If you're a smoker, make quitting your No. 1 New Year's resolution

While smoking is bad for everyone's health, it is especially harmful for people with diabetes. Nicotine in cigarette smoke causes large and small blood vessels to harden and narrow, resulting in reduced blood flow to the rest of your body.

Because people with diabetes already have a greater risk of developing health problems like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, nerve damage, foot problems and more, smoking makes the risks that much greater.

These tips aren't just for diabetics — they're good advice for anyone who's trying to lead a healthier lifestyle and prevent serious health problems, including diabetes, down the road. It's important to start taking steps now to keep yourself and your family healthy for life.

Related Stories