Some of my patients with diabetes ask me what’s the big deal if their blood sugar levels go up a little or they gain a few pounds over the holidays. They say they can always lose the weight afterward and get their sugar levels under control.
To an extent, that could be true. If you’re in good overall health, doing well with your diabetes control and manufacturing reasonable amounts of insulin, a day or two of indulging a bit more than usual in holiday food shouldn’t be a problem.
How long that overindulgence goes on, and how many times, though, are important factors. The holidays can easily extend well past New Year’s to Easter and Passover and beyond. If you slip into bad eating habits, you can do long-term damage, raise your blood sugars and gain weight.
6 tips for surviving the holidays
You can keep your weight and blood sugar levels under control during the holidays using these tips:
- Maintain your meal schedule. If you overeat, trying to catch up by skipping a meal afterward may cause you to overeat when you have your next meal or if a snack is available.
- Resist peer pressure. A lot of rich, unhealthy dishes will be available to you over the holidays. If you’re pressured to eat and you’re not comfortable saying you have diabetes, just say you’re following a special diet.
- Use your smartphone. You can download mobile apps to your phone, including apps that help you count carbs of certain dishes, and let you know how much insulin you need to take (if you use it before meals).
- Order smart in restaurants. You’d be pleasantly surprised how many restaurants offer healthy options not mentioned on the menu. Ask for options with less saturated fat, fried food and sugars. Substitute olive oil with fresh pepper for butter. You can also substitute sides. Ask for a baked or boiled potato (skin on) or fresh, steamed or stir-fried veggies instead of mashed potatoes. Have whole-grain bread instead of white. For carbohydrate-rich meals such as pasta, ask if whole-grain pasta is available, and limit cheese and other fatty ingredients. Consider sharing these dishes with a dining partner. You may prefer a more satisfying higher-protein fish or chicken dish.
- Cook light, healthy dishes to take with you to parties. There are many delicious, diabetes-friendly recipes, like low-sugar pumpkin mousse parfait, that you can bring to holiday parties. You can find low-sugar recipes from the American Diabetes Association.
- Stay active. If you can’t stick to your usual exercise program during this busy time, do some fun activity with family or friends. If 40 minutes a day at one time isn’t possible, break your exercise up into 10- to 15-minute segments, two or three times a day.
How to avoid the weight loss trap
Why should weight gain during the holidays affect your diabetes? Usually you can lose it within a month or two, right?
Studies reveal that you might be able to lose most, but not all, of the excess weight afterward, especially if you are already overweight. So over a few years, you can gain significant amounts of weight. Also, each time you lose weight, you are likely to lose both fat and muscle mass.
Only exercise can reduce the amount of muscle you might lose while you try to lose weight. Unfortunately, when you gain weight, almost all of the weight is related to gaining fat mass, studies say. Overall, if during each year you gain and lose weight two to three times, then over a period of five years you can be expected to have much more fat and less muscle mass — even if you maintained the same weight.
What happens when blood sugar levels run high
High blood sugars — for a few days or even a few weeks — can also affect your health. Each time the blood sugar (glucose) is higher, the specialized pancreas cells’ ability to make insulin decreases. This is called glucose toxicity. There may be some recovery if blood glucose levels improve due to better dietary management and more exercise.
On other occasions, when blood glucose levels remain high for a long time — or tend to be high on and off at frequent intervals — the damage may become permanent. The result is higher blood sugars, requiring more dietary restrictions, exercise and medications.