November 30, 2010

Holiday Food Strategies

A lot of those of you reading this have been doing very well with your diets over the past weeks, months or even years. You know what's at stake and you're willing to forgo tempting high-carb treats if that's what it takes to avoid blindness, amputation or kidney failure. You have found meals that work for you, things to eat at lunch at work, and treats that don't raise your blood sugar to the levels that will harm you.

Then the holidays come and it gets ugly. Suddenly there's food everywhere and all of it is bad for you. Making good choices four or five times a day is tough enough. Making them 21 times a day can overwhelm the best of us.

And even worse, the food you encounter at this time of year comes with a lifetime's worth of emotionally plangent associations. It hurts to say no to a slice of Aunt Mary's Pecan Pie--your favorite since you were four. It's even worse not to be able to eat the cake you have baked every year since you had your own kids using your grandma's recipe--passed on from her own grandmother. The parties at work are full of things you used to love eating. The parties your friends give are full of once-a-year treats, too.

Everyone else can eat them, promising themselves they'll go on a diet in January. Not you. You know too well that indulging in six weeks of unrestrained eating will undo the very hard work you've done over the past year and possibly derail the good habits you've worked so hard to develop.

But avoiding it all can end up sending you into a deep depression, or fill you with rage at those people around you who are so carelessly damaging their bodies. Because food is so tightly linked with other emotions it is tough for most of us to turn away from food without paying a psychic cost.

So what to do?

The answer will be different for each of us, as our life histories and physiologies will also differ. But to help you out I've listed some strategies that have worked for myself and other people with diabetes over the years. Perhaps some of them will help you get through this stressful time of year.

1. Schedule Indulgence. Some of us do best if we build "safety valves" into our dietary regimens. If you know you can eat whatever you want on certain days (or hours) you might find it easier to say "no" to the food temptations that assail you the rest of the time. One day of high blood sugars every two weeks won't kill you and if you know you will eat freely at your Aunt Mary's traditional Christmas banquet--it's easier to say "no" to the packaged cookies, stale donuts, and mix-made brownies that assail you at work.

2. Keep the Foods that Really Tempt You OUT of the House One of the most helpful rules of dieting is this: If it isn't there you can't eat it. I have learned through dire experience that if there's a box of peppermint bark anywhere in the house, I'm in trouble. I do give myself permission to buy a small bar of the stuff and enjoy it, but when it's gone, it's gone. Family members, who agree I'm much cuter with all my toes, are respectful of my limits and do not fill the fridge with things that will make my life hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of holiday foods that don't appeal to me that they like, which are the ones they do bring home.

3. Fill the Fridge with Low Carb Treats. You can make Low carb cheesecake, pumpkin bread, rum flavored chocolate truffles, fudge and a host of other foods which are legal and will give you something to eat when the need to eat holiday junk becomes overwhelming. Buy yourself a wheel of Brie (sold this time of year at Whole Foods at a very reasonable price.) Pate is another holiday treat food which can be indulged in freely as are fancy sausages and ham.

4. Set a Reasonable Diet Goal. If you're in weight loss mode, it may be a lot easier to set as your holiday goal to end up at the same weight on January 2 as you were on November 24 rather than to lose weight during the holiday period. Everyone diets in January, which makes it much easier to get back on track then.

5. Learn About the Physiological Reasons Why Food Can Get Out of Control When You Indulge. If you've been controlling by keeping your carbs low, you may be taken aback at the ravenous hunger that may emerge when you indulge in high carb treats. Too many people take this as a personal failing which turns self-hatred into yet another factor making them eat even more. I have put up a web page that explains why this happens and how to get the best of it when it does: When You Crash Off Your Diet

6. Give Your Self Some Motivating Alternative Rewards. Set yourself goals and if you achieve them, reward yourself with some non-food gift to yourself that you wouldn't otherwise indulge in. Make it something you really want. If your finances are strapped ask your family or best friends to help you with this. If you know you'll get that piece of jewelry you've longed for, or a weekend away, in January, if you achieve your diet goals, it may be easier to achieve them.

7. Forgive Yourself. If despite your best efforts things don't work out as you'd have liked, admit you're human and move on. People with diabetes have enough to contend with without adding self-hatred into the mix. Do the best you can and if it isn't enough, start over--not next week or next year, but right now. When you start over, analyze what it was that derailed you this time, so you can come up with an alternate strategy that will work better with your own, unique personality.

What have you found most helpful in getting through this season of non-stop food orgies?



Beth@WeightMaven said...

Love this list!! It's really a fabulous strategy for dieters as well as diabetics.

I especially love, love, love #5 ... holiday eating at last Christmas and Easter threw me into horrible tailspins (the post-Easter crash lasted 6 months!!). Wish I had your "when you crash off your diet" post then!!

Jan Blawat said...

The easiest thing for me is to just say "no thank you." At my age, I've already tasted everything at least 25 times. The only problem I have, in my family of diabetics, is that it gripes the others when I refuse to join them in eating their sugarless (but still high carb) junk. I have never had a problem finding plenty of good stuff to eat. Thanks for your suggestions, I do know a couple of folks who get so weighed down in guilt it throws them into a funk. I'm going to send your information to them.

Jenny said...

Jan, It's a mercy to belong to an extended family of people who cook gawdawful low fat food. Not all of us are so lucky.

lizz.starr92 said...

Hey, i've started following you today. I'm possibly a MODY diabetic and am trying to find some more blogs I can relate to. Definately going to spend some time reading through your blog, thanks for getting this out there i guess!

Lori Miller said...

I don't let myself get too hungry.

Maybe it's a regional thing (I live in Colorado), but people don't tend to push food on each other.

Timothy said...

A high protein snack/meal BEFORE the party cuts down on grazing for me. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Steve Parker, M.D. said...

All good advice. Thanks, Jenny.


Anna said...

I try to eat a hard boiled egg or two or some cheddar cheese before going to events where I know the majority of the food provided is going to be high sugar/high starch/gluten foods. If I have some available in the freezer or fridge, one or two very high fat nut bars I make (based loosely on Nora Gedgaudes' online nut snack recipe directions) are also great for staving off hunger for hours and hours.

If I'm taking an item to share at a potluck, I always choose something I can eat even if there there is nothing else there suitable for me. Deviled eggs are *always* good, but if I don't have time (or the egg-peeling doesn't go well) I make egg salad to dip with or spread onto jicama slices, cucumber slices, baked salami "crackers", or wide red pepper slices, etc. Deviled eggs/egg salad are always eaten up with no leftovers. If my son is coming I'll also take some GF rice crackers. Paté, a salami/prosciutto platter, or cheese platter are other easy items I like to share at potlucks.

I don't even nibble on the high carb party fare for the most part. Between the wheat, the sugar, the veg oil content of most party foods, these aren't very appetizing to me anymore, even if I'm hungry and there is nothing else good to eat.

I also drink a full glass of still or sparkling water in between any alcohol I might drink (usually wine).

Anna said...

Traveling by air is another time it can be hard to find good food to eat. Even low carb foods are ridiculously over-priced and the quality ranges from just ok to awful. On a cross-country flight itinerary recently, I packed some of my high fat nut bars (started out frozen, and well-wrapped) along with me and never gave a thought to the high carb in-flight snacks nor did I even think buy a low carb lunch during a layover.

On the return flight we pre-cooked bacon slices, locally-made sliced dry soppressata salami and cheddar, which were compact and easy to wrap in waxed paper and a plastic bag. With a little advance planning and prep, I find no need for another yet overpriced low quality airport chicken caesar salad while traveling. I pack an empty S/S water bottle with a good screw-on top s/ silicone gasket seal, and fill it with water once inside airport security.

Jenny said...

Great ideas, people. Keep 'em coming!

Patricia said...

NUTS! I went to a family gathering where I knew there would be little or nothing I could eat. So I brought my own - almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans. I have a fancy little carved wood dish with different sections. When I got there I pulled out the dish, filled it with different nuts, and plopped it down. Everyone was thrilled with the treat! And I had something healthy and good to eat. This could work well at holiday parties too.

I buy high-quality nuts (raw, organic), which can be expensive. The up side is that since they are not the candied kind, folks tend to enjoy them rather than devour them, which ensures there's plenty for you!

If it's a large gathering, you may not want to share your pricey morsels with a big crowd. Nuts keep and travel very well. Put a bunch in a baggie, stash the baggie in a pocket or purse, and nibble your way through the event.

Your mouth will be busy with pleasant munching and crunching and you won't be hungry. This will help to mitigate temptation.

Ian said...

I use the #1 suggestion: I allow myself "carb-free free" days on my birthday, our wedding anniversary and one day around Christmas, and the promise of them keeps me honest the rest of the year.

I stuffed myself with chocolate and icecream and such the first few times, but now I find myself just sampling some otherwise forbidden treats in a much more restrained manner.

Oh, and I get to eat Christmas pudding and custard on Christmas Day, even if I'm not using that day for a splurge!

sibylla said...

In general I find your blog empowering and uplifting, but this post is really quite negative and depressing, and unnecessarily so in my opinion.

I don't see why you would have to deprive yourself of traditional family treats, especially if they have a sentimental attachment. OK so you're not going to be eating all of auntie's cake, but there's no reason for a blanket ban on consumption. A little taste will not harm you!

I find small portions of high-carb food are OK even for my very very deranged metabolism - though admittedly I say this from the privileged perspective of a complete lack of a sweet tooth, e.g. for me, 2 small bites of a Krispy Kreme donut are enough and I don't want any more - and neither do I need to bolus for that.

On a more positive note, my preferred coping strategy is to host such gatherings. I do a big pot of something meaty, savoury and low-carb (like a goulash with non-carby vegetables), put out a big non-carby salad as well as carby sides for everyone with normal metabolisms. I find that works well as everyone can pick what they enjoy from the same table.

Jenny said...

Sybilla, If this isn't a problem you face, you might find the post negative, but after years of reading online discussion boards I'd have to say you're in a fortunate minority. The holidays overwhelm and derail far too many people, which is why I am being honest about the problem here.

Some people will find a few bites of something leads to weeks of overeating (you can see that cited in commenst here) others will get really sick if they eat a high carb meal. Only about half of people with diabetes can feel their blood sugar rising, but for those who do, it is a really unpleasant feeling that can also cause depression at holiday times.

Diabetes manifests so differently for people, that what is a problem for one might be nothing to another. I don't base my writings on only my own experience (which is quite different from that of many people as is the form of diabetes I have) but on what I've garnered reading open discussions online for years and what people email me about.

Carol Will said...

On the contrary, I found this post to be very helpful and caring. Let's not underestimate the emotional impact of watching others indulge all around us during these holiday times. Others around us, although claiming to understand our diabetic plight, don't understand the seriousness of the consequences of overindulging on carbs. During this joyous time of celebration, our loved ones are often apt to encourage us to lighten up. For the diabetic person, a plan on keeping perspective is really necessary.

I know that if I were to lose my focus, the 200 plus blood sugars would definitely make me feel physically ill and irritable. The reality is that diabetes means taking care of yourself, which is a positive perspective to me! These types of posts actually help me to be thinking ahead of how I will cope with all the holiday offerings.

sibylla said...

In my more ghoulish moments, I concentrate on an image of myself blind, limbless and hooked up to a dialysis machine. I find that stops carb cravings quite quickly. However, when feeling more positive, I tell myself that the wisdom contained in pages like yours should help keep that just that - a ghoulish thought! (Although with this horrid disease one can never tell right? I keep thinking I'm going to end up like one of those non-smokers that dies of lung cancer.)

PS I loved your holiday gift ideas suggestions. After reading that, I went out and bought the pricker as an early Christmas present to myself.

Robert said...

The one holiday food I haven't been able to squelch my appetite for is potato latkes. You can't really make them with a cauliflower mash! But if anyone has any ideas....Thanks for all the good ideas, Jenny!

Lori Miller said...

Sibylla, two bites of a Krispy Kreme doughnut would send my mom's blood sugar over 200. She's one of those who feels lousy when her BG is high.

Her strategy at Thanksgiving was to bring some low-carb dishes to the dinner.

Helen said...

I hadn't been eating any sugar even before dx, but this Thanksgiving I'd made a gluten-free chocolate cake (celiac is another health issue in my family) for my husband's concurrent birthday. It looked pretty good.

I figured I'd budget my carbs to include a small slice. I ate a small portion of the (very good) quinoa stuffing that I'd made, had a *small* taste of cranberry sauce, one cube of potato, a large spoonful of sweet potatoes, half a baked apple, and a small piece of cake. I ate everything very slowly, taking sips of delicious coffee between each bite of chocolate cake.

I expected a nasty 180-ish 1-hour pp for my transgression. I had 124 at one hour and the same at two. That's better than a normal day. Part of it could have been the length of the meal and the time between the dinner and dessert courses.

I found out that if I'm careful, I can have something decadent from time to time. I didn't really miss anything. I would have eaten more stuffing and sweet potatoes if I didn't have diabetes, but I was satisfied with the amount of cake I had. The turkey and gluten-free gravy I'd made were low-carb and delicious, so I had plenty of those. My first Thanksgiving with diagnosed diabetes - and celiac! - was one of the most delicious.

sibylla said...

Lori - that doesn't sound right. Of course, YMMV. But in mathematical terms alone, 2 bites for me is 1/4 of a donut, which makes it 7g of carb, which by itself would raise BG by about 50 max. (You didn't say what the pre-donut BG was .) Unless there are additional liver or other issues going on. As an example of 'other issues', I myself can spike above 200 on small, zero carb meals in times of stress or illness.

Anna said...

According to the Krispy Kreme website nutritional data, a glazed Kreme-filled donut (the most popular KK variety) has 39 g CHO per donut. Estimating 2 bites as 1/4 donut is a bit under 10 g CHO (optimistic, as I've seen people practically inhale numerous KKs, as they are very airy and all-to-easy to stuff into a pie-hole).

Other varieties of KK donuts range in the 34-42 g CHO, though there are a few plainer varieties in the 20s. Some pies and the honey bun are much higher, as much as 61 g CHO

The frozen beverages range from 31-65 g CHO. Ok, I don't miss KK donuts anymore.

sibylla said...

My comments about Krispy Kreme were based on my own experience; my favourite Krispy Kreme is actually the original glazed which according to the KK website is 22g of carb. And for me 2 bites=1/4=5.5g carb. I readily admit that I am in the fortunate minority in not having a sweet tooth.

Strangely enough my meter tells me that I can metabolize those 5.5g CHO of KK much easier than 5.5g of CHO found in, for example, lentils or split peas. But try convincing my diabetes team! Luckily I trust my meter more than some of the nurses, one of whom was trying to convince me that 130g CHO was the minimum I should eat in a day...

Anna said...


I have the same experience with the same amount of sugary carbs vs starchy carbs (like those in lentil & peas). I can only guess it's because sugar (sucrose, aka cane sugar) breaks down into half fructose, half glucose. The fructose half goes directly to the liver for metabolism and doesn't directly raise BG. Starch breaks down only into glucose. So the amounts of glucose are be different, even though the CHO may be the same.

Grain starches seems to spike my BG the fastest and highest of all high carb foods, so I don't eat grain foods very often anymore, and I don't eat wheat at all

Patricia said...

Vegetable Latkes from Mark's Daily Apple (

I haven't tried them, but they look really good. I've been on the lookout for something like this since reading Robert's comment. Hope he sees this!

Dawn said...

I make veggie latkes (as on Mark's Daily Apple) and they are good. The way they differ from potato latkes is the crispness factor, though. I just don't think that turnip and celeriac can ever become as crisp as potato, so if I really want a crisp potato, that will just have to be my indulgence for that day. Otherwise the lower-carb root veggies make nice latkes and hash browns, and I enjoy them nearly as much as their potato-y cousins.