The Medical Minute: Tips for healthier holiday eating

Turkey and ham, pie and cookies, and sweet potatoes and yams are just some of the rich, fatty, sugary, starchy foods that tempt us during the holidays. Seasonal gatherings are sometimes difficult to navigate, but for those with diabetes, food-focused celebrations can be even more challenging.

Heather Stuckey, assistant professor of medicine at Penn State College of Medicine, says it doesn't have to be that way. Stuckey believes that for people with (or without) diabetes, healthy eating should be considered a way of life.

"It's about a lifestyle," Stuckey said. "It's not just on Christmas day, Thanksgiving or Passover; it's a constant awareness. Diabetes lasts forever, we don't have a cure. It doesn't take a holiday. It doesn't take a break."

Stuckey offers the following tips, not only to those with diabetes, but to anyone trying to eat healthy.

Eat before you go so you're not too hungry and your blood sugar doesn't dip too low. A good choice is a small handful of nuts.

Survey the menu options before you indulge and don't take the first thing you see. Otherwise, before you know it, you have a plate full of starches. Stuckey suggests a slice or two of cheese, crackers, or nuts as an appetizer; lean meats for dinner; and filling the plate with vegetables.

Don't deprive yourself. Stuckey says to take a bite of something you really enjoy. Portion control is key.

"A bite of anything, for most people, will satisfy that craving and won't be enough to raise your blood sugar," she said. "The problem is, most people don't stop at a bite. If you know you're that kind of person, then it's best to try to find a substitute for that food." A good source of diabetes-safe recipes is the American Diabetes Association website, diabetes.org.

Ask yourself is it worth it? "Is it more important to have a whole piece of pie or is it important to avoid a stroke in the future or avoid a heart complication," Stuckey said. "That sounds drastic, but you almost have to think that way." For someone with diabetes, keep in mind why you're trying to control your blood sugar.

Move! If you're going to have something sweet, take a walk in between dinner and dessert. Activity is healthy, especially on days when you know you're going to eat more than usual. Stuckey recommends making movement part of the tradition. "It's so much better to have a game of football in the backyard than it is to sit and watch football all day," she said. Activity benefits everyone, not just family members with diabetes.

Remind yourself, what's not healthy. Think about substitutions for foods high in carbs that raise blood sugar, like bread, mashed potatoes, stuffing and traditional desserts like pumpkin and apple pie. Stuffing, for example, is high in fat and carbs and does not have a lot of nutritional value.

Consider a baked potato to better control the butter and top it with broccoli, or use salt-free seasonings to add more flavor.

Prepare the turkey in natural juices and water rather than in gravy.

Offer a variety of vegetables.

Add a salad to feel fuller. Vegetables like asparagus, green beans, carrots, and festive-colored peppers are healthful and have the most color to make a more appetizing plate.

Cook with broth or stock instead of butter, but watch the fat, sodium content and cholesterol. These do not affect blood sugar, but high blood pressure and high cholesterol often go hand-in-hand with diabetes.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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Last Updated November 19, 2012