How to Navigate Thanksgiving with Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month, a time when communities across the country team up to bring attention to diabetes. In partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), this year’s focus is on the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

November also means Thanksgiving, which isn’t always easy for people living with diabetes, considering that it is centered around sharing an abundance of food with family and friends. It can be difficult when many of the traditional foods on the table, such as potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, are rich with calories and carbs. The good news is that you can still enjoy your holiday while watching what you eat – you only need a small amount of preparation and some creative thinking. Here’s how to navigate Thanksgiving eating while sustaining your health.

1. Make a Game Plan

Gluttony is difficult for anyone on Thanksgiving-all of the side dishes, family favorites, and an entire table dedicated to desserts, beckoning you to try every one of them. But do you have to eat them all? Of course not – especially if you plan what you’re going to eat. Strategic planning can help you make good choices and keep your carbohydrate intake steady.

If you’re not hosting the holiday meal, offer to bring a low-calorie, lower-carbohydrate dish or two. Consider a green bean and sliced almond dish, cauliflower mashed “potatoes,” or crispy roasted Brussels sprouts. Whether you are the host or a guest, there are many diabetes-friendly recipes you can incorporate into turkey day.

2. Thanksgiving Meal Dos and Don'ts

No matter where Thanksgiving takes place, the easiest way to limit food intake is by carefully checking your portion size. Leftovers are likely, so you’ll probably be able to have the same food again the next day, if not throughout next week. Take smaller portions of each offering rather than fill your plate.

If Thanksgiving is at your house, you have control over what goes into or stays out of the food. If your family loves a few higher-calorie traditions, search for ways to make them more nutritious – by adding vegetables, reducing the amount of fat, and making baking substitutions. Here are a few additional ideas on what to avoid, and what to savor guilt-free.

Thanksgiving Foods To Limit & Enjoy

Limit

Plain store-bought stuffing

Creamy mashed potatoes

Sweet desserts

White turkey meat (no skin)

White bread & processed flours

Canned cranberry sauce

Sweet potatoes or yams with marshmallow topping

Enjoy

Whole-wheat, veggie-filled stuffing

Roasted carrots, green beans, and other veggies

Apple, lemon, pumpkin, berry-based desserts

Dark turkey meat

Whole grain bread, whole wheat, and nut flours

Cranberry sweetened w/ dried fruit (no sugar)

Sweet potatoes with egg meringue topping

3. Help Yourself to Some Turkey

When fixing your plate, don’t forget about the turkey. We often overstuff ourselves on appetizers and miss out on the main course. Aim to reduce your intake of pre-meal snacks (chips, cheese, dips, etc.) and save room for some of the healthier choices, like turkey. Turkey is a great source of protein, high in niacin, phosphorous, selenium, vitamin B6, and zinc. It is also all protein and has zero grams of carbohydrates (which means it won’t spike your blood sugar). A 3-ounce serving of white meat turkey breast contains roughly 87 calories, 15g of protein, and 3g of carbs. The key to eating turkey is to avoid drowning it in gravy – a tablespoon or two is fine. It is Thanksgiving, after all!

4. Don't Stuff Yourself on Stuffing (Dressing, this is the South)

Stuffing can pack a calorie, fat, and carbohydrate wallop. The main ingredients in dressing are bread and butter. Understandably, if it’s your favorite side dish and you look forward to it all year, by all means, take some, but try to keep your portion in check (about 1/2 cup).

If you have control over how the dressing is made, there are other ways to make it healthier: substituting fat-free chicken or veggie broth for some of the butter goes a long way toward cutting fat and calories. Also, try using whole-grain bread, then adding generous amounts of chopped vegetables (such as celery, carrots, onion, and cauliflower), various nuts and seeds – they will help make your stuffing substantially healthier, more filling, and less likely to affect blood sugar.

5. Start a New Tradition

It’s easy to pack in the calories and carbs when you’re sitting at the table all day long, surrounded by food. Take some of the attention off the food by engaging in some physical activity. Consider doing a turkey trot before heading to your destination or bring along some fun outdoor games like Cornhole or Kam Jam.  Participating in another activity will also keep you occupied, so you don’t pick at leftovers or succumb to that second piece of pecan pie.

Having diabetes doesn’t mean your holiday is going to be doomed. You can enjoy the food and the company while sticking to your health goals. All you need is a plan of action – limit picking, help yourself to the vegetables and turkey, enjoy a small amount of your favorite healthy dessert, and move around a bit. You will feel satisfied and content with your choices, all while maintaining good energy and a healthy blood sugar level.