Diabetic? Here's how to enjoy Thanksgiving

Posted November 16, 2012 2:05 p.m. EST
Updated November 16, 2012 2:57 p.m. EST

I love to eat. So when I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a few years ago, I was distraught at the thought of facing my first Thanksgiving under the dietary restrictions of my new disease. The mouth-watering anticipation of this yearly gorge-fest was replaced with worry as I pictured myself passing over the mounds of garlic mashed potatoes and savory stuffing in favor of bland boiled carrots and dry white turkey meat. It was enough to make me consider pulling the plug on one of my favorite traditions. In my gravy-addled brain, I reasoned that if I couldn’t have all the pumpkin pie and whipped topping that I wanted, I may as well have none. Sigh.

But that was just crazy talk.

With the support of my doctor, my diabetic brother, my good friends and a lot of great cookbooks, I realized I didn’t have to give up the deliciousness of Thanksgiving. I just had to find myself a new attitude about it. Although I’d like to think I’ve absorbed some of my brother’s vast intellectual knowledge on the topic (he’s an insulin-dependent surgeon), I am not a medical professional and in no way am I dispensing medical advice here. I’m just a big girl who found a few tips that work for me. I’m sharing them in the hopes that they work for you, too. Please consider talking to your doctor, nurse practitioner or diabetes educator for help navigating the holidays so they don’t turn into a disaster of self-denial and deprivation. And remember that no matter what you’re eating, holidays are really about spending time with people you love.

Graze, don’t gorge. I used to wait until the food was ready and on the table, eat one huge gut-busting meal, then fall out on the sofa. But doing that as a diabetic can lead to unstable blood sugar as the surge of carbohydrates makes glucose levels spike and crash. I find I have better control when I approach the turkey day buffet with the mindset that I don’t have to eat everything at once. Two smaller meals in the day help me feel satisfied without worrying about my meter.
Stick to the plate method. You know the drill – no more than a third of your plate should be starchy side dishes. Lucky for me, I love vegetables. Just make sure they are grilled, roasted or prepared in an otherwise healthy manner. Think about bringing non-traditional veggies to the table to tempt the palate. And don’t forget that turkey is carb-free. Bring on the meat, people.

Dodge the rolls. As diabetics, we know we have to make choices when it comes to our carbs. There’s a bit of mental horse-trading that goes on: A buttery roll or a few spoons of macaroni and cheese? I’ve learned the best carb choices are the ones that give a nutritional boost as well. The American Diabetes Association lists sweet potatoes and beans as “superfoods.” Trust me when I say that if you slow-bake a perfectly ripe sweet potato in its own skin and sprinkle it with a little cinnamon, you won’t even miss the butter, brown sugar or marshmallows. Well, OK – you will shed a tear for the marshmallows.

Be thankful for sugar substitutes. I never drank a diet soda before my diagnosis. Now, I’d like to kiss the people who invented Splenda, Truvia, Equal and every other zero-carb concoction on the planet. Yes, yes, I know that sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie-free or carb-free, but it offers wiggle room to work sweets into your meal plan. Last year, I found the most fabulous pumpkin pie at my local grocery store that was made with Splenda. My non-diabetic friends could not tell the difference.

Get moving. I hate exercise. Loathe it, really. But those days of plopping down in front of the television after Thanksgiving dinner are over. Grab your dinner companions or the dog and go for a brisk walk around the neighborhood or nearest park. There’s nothing better than mild post-meal exercise to keep that blood sugar in check. This has become a tradition for me at every holiday. Two years ago, I invited my friends over for a New Year’s Day breakfast, then we headed out for a brisk walk to start the day.

Plan ahead and practice portion control. Portion control is obvious, right? Not so if you’re new at this. Read the labels and measure to stay on top of how much you’re really eating. A ½-cup serving isn’t nearly as much food as you think it is. I figured out that my fist is about the size of a cup, which makes for a good comparison when I’m not sure how much I’ve scooped out of the pan and onto my plate. Planning ahead is another simple step that’s especially effective when dining out. Look at the menu online, before you go, then don’t open it when you are in the restaurant. I don’t know about you, but when I see the words “chicken wings” on a menu, suddenly I don’t want the grilled fish.

Enjoy. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about being a diabetic who struggles with food choices is that failure will happen. Diabetes is a daily struggle, and sometimes you’re going to lose. So if you overindulge on Turkey Day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just enjoy it and do better the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.