The holidays are a great time for enjoying family, friends and food, but a tough time for staying healthy. That’s particularly true for the more than 29 million Americans who have diabetes.
This disease affects one out of every 11 people in the United States and costs our economy $245 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 86 million Americans — about one out of every three people — have prediabetes, which means they have a higher blood-sugar level and are more likely to develop the disease.
Controlling diabetes means maintaining healthy eating habits and exercising regularly, which is challenging with the busy schedules, cold weather and sugary foods that come with the holidays.
However, if you have diabetes, it’s not impossible to enjoy the holidays, eat some of your favorite foods and stay on track with your medical plan. If you plan ahead, you can make smart choices and eliminate the anxiety of trying figuring out what you should and shouldn’t eat.
Here are practical tips to help you develop a smart plan for enjoying the holidays with diabetes. Most of these also are good for everyone interested in maintaining a healthy holiday season.
• Decide in advance what you are going to eat. If you aren’t preparing holiday meals yourself, find out what is being served and figure out how to make it fit with your diet plan.
• Eat the same amount of carbohydrate as a normal day. Many holiday foods are high in carbs, such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls, cranberry sauce and desserts. To help manage your carb intake, prioritize your absolute favorite foods and skip the others.
• Eat reasonable portions. Most holiday meals encourage large portions, so make sure you are aware of how much is on your plate. If you can’t decide between your favorite foods, sample very small portions so you get a bit of everything.
• Enjoy desserts, but be smart. If you can’t miss your favorite dessert, plan ahead. Most sweets have a lot of carbs, so keep portion sizes small and cut back on other carbs. If you know that pumpkin pie is coming, skip the sweet potatoes.
• Keep healthy snacks handy. To help avoid munching on high-calorie snacks, bring your own healthy foods to nibble on, like raw vegetables and a low-calorie dip or low-fat cheese.
• Revise recipes to make them healthier. Take charge of the cooking and change the recipes to make them healthier. Use sugar substitutes, replace half the butter in your recipe with applesauce, and season vegetables rather than frying them or covering them in cheese.
• Consider meal times. Many holiday meals take place at odd times, like mid-afternoon. Plan a healthy snack at your regular meal time to keep your blood sugar normal.
• Stay physically active. Increase your activity levels if you are eating more. Take walks, plan family football games or train for a run.
• Drink in moderation. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation and remember to eat something beforehand to prevent low blood-sugar levels. Avoid drinks that have high-sugar mixers like soda, juice and margarita mix.
• Pay attention to your travel schedule. Leaving home to visit family and friends changes routines. Plan in advance how you will take care of your diabetes on the road and check your blood sugar levels often.
• Remember your medication. It’s wise to pack twice the amount of diabetes supplies you expect to need when traveling because winter weather can disrupt travel plans. If you are flying, keep your medicine and supplies in your carry-on bag.
• Don’t stress out. Stress is a major cause of health problems during the holidays. By planning how you will address your medical needs in advance, you can relieve a major cause of anxiety.
• Focus on the people, not the food. Holiday foods are a delicious treat, but they are not the reason for the season. Focus your priorities on spending quality time with the special people in your life.
If you have questions about managing your diabetes during the holidays, consult your physician. By following these tips and using good judgment, you can enjoy a happy and healthy holiday season.
Alexander is the chief medical officer of Amerigroup Georgia.