How to Enjoy Thanksgiving With Diabetes

Diabetes patients can handle this holiday feast by thinking ahead

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Thanksgiving may pose a challenge for diabetes patients, but it doesn’t have to take the stuffing out of the celebration. Some planning can help keep the difficulties to a minimum.

November is American Diabetes Month. It's also when the holiday season begins, putting many diabetes patients on alert about what they eat. Thanksgiving — with its endless banquet of tempting pumpkin pies, stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls, wine and more — can be a difficult time to control blood sugar levels. The holiday, however, can be relatively stress-free with some preparation.

Eating affects blood sugar (glucose) levels in all people. In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is not producing any insulin. With type 2 diabetes, the body is either not producing enough insulin or the cells in the body are not reacting properly to insulin (insulin resistance). 

Insulin is a hormone made by beta cells in the pancreas. Insulin helps move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it is used for energy. Without insulin, the glucose stays in the bloodstream.

If not controlled, high blood sugar levels can lead to long-term damage to nerves, blood vessels and organs. Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, foot and leg amputations and blindness.

Tips to Tackle the Big Meal

Diabetes patients will have different approaches for controlling their blood sugar levels. In addition to monitoring blood sugar levels, here are some recommendations from the American Diabetes Association on how to handle Thanksgiving:

  • Think about the timing of your meal. This big holiday meal is often served at an odd time. The turkey may be ready at 2 in the afternoon. Plan how to handle blood sugar levels if mealtime does not match your regular meal schedule. If you take insulin injections or a pill that lowers blood sugar, you may need to have a snack at your regular mealtime to prevent a reaction from a drop in glucose. Consider a platter of raw or blanched veggies with your favorite low-calorie dip or have a few small pieces of low-fat cheese.
  • Be physically active. On Thanksgiving, communities often hold a “turkey trot” or short run to get people moving. Exercise is a great way to compensate for eating a little more than usual. Take a walk with the whole family or play Frisbee, soccer, or touch football.
  • Make selective food choices. Traditional Thanksgiving foods can be high in carbohydrates. These foods include mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and other desserts. Try to set limits on these, or just enjoy the carbs you like best. For example, if stuffing is your favorite, pass on rolls. Choose either sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes.
  • Eat smaller portions. Watch your portion sizes. Try to keep your total carbohydrate intake the same as a regular day.
  • Eat your vegetables. Vegetables are healthy for all, but sometimes the selection at Thanksgiving can be limited. Make sure to have colorful vegetables on the table. Offer to bring a green salad or a side of steamed veggies. Non-starchy vegetables are low in carbs and calories.
  • Enjoy the turkey. White turkey meat (without skin) is not only low in fat and high in protein, it is also a good source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins. It is also one of the only parts of the Thanksgiving meal with no carbohydrates.

In a press release, Tracey Lucier, RD, Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center (affiliated with Harvard Medical School) in Boston, recommends starting the day off with a good breakfast so as not to be tempted to overeat. She also recommends avoiding canned cranberries that are often high in sugar, limiting wine to a glass or two with dinner (consider diluting it with seltzer to make a spritzer) and asking for family support.

Let your family members know they can support you by walking around the block with you after dinner, Lucier said in a statement.  "Make your day about togetherness and family fun, and not just about the food."

Sarah Samaan, MD, cardiologist and physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, offered this advice to dailyRx News readers: "While a traditional Thanksgiving feast may be chock full of starchy carbs and sugary treats, it doesn't have to be a diabetic minefield. To enjoy the day without risking sugar shock, plan ahead. Have a small spoonful or two of the mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole so you don't feel left out of the fun, but load up on the green salad and other fresh veggies. Turkey is fine for diabetics, but watch the fat and carb-laden dressing, and take just a little on the side. If you can't pass up dessert, share a piece with one or more other guests at the table. Weather permitting, avoid the temptation to graze after the meal by taking a good long walk, and work in a few exrea workouts throughout the holiday week."

You Are Not Alone

As the American Diabetes Association points out, 25.8 million children and adults in the United States (8.3 percent of the population) have diabetes. About 79 million have pre-diabetes.

In October, the actor Tom Hanks announced that he has type 2 diabetes and that he had been battling high blood sugar numbers since he was 36. 

Halley Berry, Delta Burke, Drew Carey, Paula Deen, Mike Huckabee, Patti Labelle, Randy Jackson and Larry King have all been diagnosed with diabetes.

Nearly 7 million people, however, are undiagnosed. 

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota suggests that if you’re experiencing any of the following diabetes signs and symptoms, you may want to see your doctor:

  • Excessive thirst and increased urination
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Slow healing sores or frequent infections
  • Tingling hands and feet
  • Red, swollen tender gums

The vision of the American Diabetes Association is to see people free of diabetes and all of its burdens. Awareness is key. The organization stresses that the disease can be controlled, and by staying on top of their condition, people with diabetes can lead normal productive lives — that includes enjoying Thanksgiving without worry.

Review Date: 
November 26, 2013