November 26, 2012

Food Self-Defense for the Holidays

We people with diabetes have just entered the six week period during which managing what we eat can morph from a daily challenge to an ongoing nightmare, culminating, all too often, in diet disaster.

As anyone who has read my books or web site knows, I'm not a fan of rigid regimentation or obsessive self-denial. I believe very strongly that the key to crafting an effective diabetes diet that you can stick to for decades, not months, is to respect yourself and your emotional needs, build in safety valves, and provide enough variety to avoid burn-out.

But over the past decades the holidays have morphed into a celebration of gluttony, not just of food, but of every kind of consumer good. And those of us who don't believe that the best way to show our love for the people around us is to shower them with gifts and stuff them with sugary, fatty food are labeled "Scrooges" or  accused of promoting economic slowdown that will rob our neighbors of jobs.

Unless you are an independently wealthy, only child orphan who lives in a cave in the wilds of Montana, the chances are you will find yourselves continually assaulted by the messages:  Buy More! Spend More!  Eat more!

So the weeks ahead are a minefield. Because food isn't just food. Food is memories. Food is love. Food is what keeps us safe when things get scary. Food is what keeps us alive and when we are feeling threats to our survival, real or symbolic, food is the easiest way to fight them off. It's legal. It's cheap. It's everywhere.

If we didn't have a medical condition where eating certain foods raised our blood sugar in ways that will, over time, clog up our arteries, damage our kidneys, shut down our retinas, and destroy our nerves, the food we are faced with during holidays might leave us a few pounds heavier, but all in all the holiday eating would really be no big deal.

But for people with diabetes the case is very different. Because if we get out of control with our food for a month or longer, we kick off physiological changes that can make us ravenously hungry and lead to months and even years of eating the foods that will ruin our organs.

So while a day here and there of unrestrained eating won't kill us, people with diabetes cannot let those days turn into weeks. And to do this they must NOT rely on the dieter's worst friend, that questionable  facility known as,"Will power," but on the known and tested strategies that help us get through weeks of food temptations without having to rely on it.

So without further ado, I list below the techniques you can adopt to keep yourself from going off the rails at this most dangerous time of the year.

1. If It Isn't There, You Can't Eat It. We're talking about the food you bring home. If there is something you are really craving, eat a portion at a restaurant or a friend's house--watching portion size, but don't bring a big box or bag of it home.  If the food isn't in the house no matter how much it calls out to you, you can't eat it. It's as simple as that. Meanwhile, stock up on delicious foods that you can eat.

If you have to bring something dangerous home because you have to serve it to others, keep it out of sight. I have learned the hard way that anything left out on the counter will beg me to eat it every time I enter the kitchen. Put things you don't want to have tempt you in the closet or in the back of the fridge where you can't see them.

2. Ask Friends or Loved Ones For Help With Food. If you have a good relationship with people likely to give you food gifts or invite you to dinner and/or parties, explain--briefly--that foods filled with carbohydrates raise your blood sugar and suggest some alternatives that would be a treat for you at the holidays so that, for example, they can show their fondness for you by offering your a delicious platter of low carb imported cheeses, or sausages, or nuts, that will not raise your blood sugar instead of a brandied cake or sugar cookies that will put you into a hyperglycemic fog.

If someone screws up and with the best of intentions gives you something toxic to your diet, like a box of high carb, maltitol-laden "sugar free" cookies, thank them, eat one in their presence to signify that you appreciate their thoughtfulness and throw the rest  away when you get home. Later, at some less emotionally-fraught time you can explain to the giver that "sugar free" products are actually full of hidden sugar that raise people's blood sugar. But don't do it when you are presented with the gift unless you want to make the giver feel bad.

If you are given something that was a huge treat before your diagnosis and can't face throwing it out, ask a family member to hide it away and dole out appropriate portions on a schedule you give them in advance. I have been known to ask My Sweetie put certain much-loved candies in his safe (to which I don't have the combination) because I know what will happen if they are too accessible, but still want to eat a small serving now and then throughout the holiday season.

3. Bring Your Own Food to Events Where You Might Not Have Safe Choices. Fortunately many events nowadays are potlucks, so you can bring a rotisserie chicken to the family gathering or a hunk of cheese to the office party if you are eating a strict low carb diet. Salads with nuts, seeds, and mixed greens are another safe option. If you bake low carb cookies or bars, make a plate of them, labeled so people will know what they are--and avoid them if they don't like artificial sweeteners, leaving more for you.

Search online to find low carb options now, so that when you are faced with the need to prepare or bring low carb treats you will have some at your disposal.

If you have to go to a formal event where there are no safe options, it can be harder to bring your own food as doing so might make a poor impression on your hosts or other attendees. Eating at home before you go can be helpful here. There should be something you can eat just about anywhere, and worst case, if you have to eat a token portion of something for politeness sake having eaten earlier will keep you from going overboard.

4. Plan for Indulgences. This is where the safety valve strategy comes in. Decide what is an appropriate level of off-plan eating for the next few weeks and schedule what you will eat in advance, concentrating on things you will really enjoy.

If your diabetes diet is very new, and you haven't learned how to get back on plan after going off plan, you will want to be very conservative. One or two portions may be all you can tolerate this year, but you can limit yourself with the thought that in a year when your new diet has become habitual you can loosen up some.

If you have learned how to get back on track after going off your diet, you can be a bit more relaxed, but make sure that you do go back on your diet when you have planned to.

5. Test, Test, Test! When you go off plan, test your blood sugar 1 and 2 hours after eating, to reinforce your understanding of why you are on your diet in the first place. The point isn't to scare yourself--one day of high blood sugars a week isn't going to make you go blind. But daily exposure to blood sugars that spend many hours over 140 mg/dl will, over time, damage your organs in ways that may be irreversible. Testing after eating keeps a lot of us honest, and I highly recommend it this time of year.

6. Learn How to Get Back On Track. If we have had our blood sugar under control, eating a lot of carbs can catapult us back into a state of rabid hunger, which is the main reason many people believe (erroneously) that they are "addicted" to carbs and that a single bite of high carb food will send them into an unrecoverable tailspin.

I have written about this at length HERE. Read this page BEFORE you contend with holiday treats. Learning how to recover from a high carb, blood sugar spike-fest is the single most useful skill many people with diabetes will ever learn, and the one that will make it possible for them to maintain their blood sugar control for the decades of healthy life they deserve to live after a diabetes diagnosis.

If you've been doing a good job controlling your blood sugar, let us know what you do to to get through the holiday eating extravaganza by posting in the comment section below.



6 comments:

FredT said...

"No thanks, it messes with my blood glucose." can get us a long way. We need to really believe it to start with, and not feel deprived of poisonous sugar.

MinnesotaDawg said...

It's my first holiday season after diagnosis in mid-January. Got through Thanksgiving okay by being pretty strict about certain categories of food (NO bread, NO dessert, NO alcohol).

Because I'm on a low-carb primal diet (mostly) it was easy to find plenty to eat - turkey, salad, green beans, etc. and even sweet potatoes (no marshmallows) with reasonable portion control.

We had a birthday celebration for a niece and during "cake time" I was able to get a bowl of plain yogurt and added some blueberries and cinnamon.

Fasting blood sugar is hovering right around 100mg each morning. Fingers crossed!

Unknown said...

I take the low carb pumpkin pie with the nut crust and the flourless chocolate cake but I eat the homemade dinner rolls and corn bread dressing, too.

Adam Becker Sr said...

One of the many things I'm thankful for this holiday season is a family - wife, kids, sisters, inlaws all - who are supportive and considerate of my special-needs diet.

Adam Becker
Still in the 5% club after all these years.

Amy B said...

Thanks for posting this article. Too late for me to avoid carbs at Thanksgiving, but I will do better at Xmas! I was surprized to realize I didn't enjoy the stuffing, etc as much as I thought I would. No real urge to eat like that every day. Still, I hate playing with fire.

Carol said...

Good post! I was lucky enough to have been in overeaters anonymous in my twenties so already had some tools to help with diabetes in my forties. I'm motivated to control it with diet and exercise so as not to end up like some of my relatives. I just focus on what foods will help me do that and skip the rest. People who urge or argue with me are misguided, so I just tell them I'm diabetic and smile. I'm fond of my eyes and my toes, not to mention my kidneys! It's been nearly 20 years and my numbers are still good.

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