Diabetes Forecast

Something More to Celebrate

Who says the holidays have to revolve around a big meal?

By Tracey Neithercott ,

Many of us treasure the holidays as a time to gather with friends and family to celebrate traditions handed down for generations. Of course, most of us also look longingly to this time of year for something else: a valid excuse to pig out. It'd be cynical to think that the feast alone is what prompts far-flung family members to journey long distances in heavy traffic or why many businesses give employees the day off. Still, let's face it: The holidays do revolve around food—vast quantities of it.

But what if there were a way to celebrate without stuffing yourself silly? It might sound impossible, but you really can avoid the stress of holiday feasts (and do your health a favor) if you focus on the celebration instead of the food. Or, put another way, a food-centered celebration is simply one way to connect and socialize with family and friends. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing.

"Most people who overeat don't feel so well. Treat it as a 'normal' day with diabetes. Still count your carbs. Still pay attention to your blood glucose.
—Don Kain

"In our evolutionary history, when food was scarce, eating was an incredibly important and significant event. It connected individuals to each other. You shared your limited food resources with those you cared about," says Jen Nash, DClinPsy, a clinical psychologist in private practice in London who has had type 1 diabetes for 24 years. "Our modern lives have developed vastly from these days of scarce food . . . and the holidays can be a way of expressing this need to connect via shared eating experiences."

That certainly doesn't mean you need to eat piles of food in order to reconnect. "The main mind-set shift is to ensure that food is only one part of the holiday experience," Nash says. "[Nonfood holiday traditions] take the focus off food and create other memories of bonding experiences."

Being Together

Ask anyone why Americans eat so much during the holidays, and you'll hear that it's a custom handed down over generations. But when you think about it, it's not food but bonding with friends and family that is the essence of the tradition. And today's families can choose to strengthen those bonds by creating new traditions that go beyond turkey and stuffing. "By doing certain year-to-year games, it gets people to think about being together," says Helaine Ciporen, LCSW, a social worker at the Center for Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and founder of the Diabetes Families website.

"There are so many good vegetables for Thanksgiving, like sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and green beans with almonds."—Helaine Ciporen

If your family doesn't have a nonfood holiday tradition, make one. You can spend time taking walks and enjoying nature, play a group game of charades between dinner and dessert, visit or phone an elderly person who couldn't be there in person, set up a craft table, or tell stories between courses to slow the meal down and emphasize togetherness.

When partygoers are having fun, they won't miss snacking before dinner or loading up on seconds after dessert. "I had a gigantic Halloween party for the kids and families at the hospital with no candy whatsoever," Ciporen says. "And nobody even asked for it. It was the trinkets that were the treats, [as were the] crafts." For Hanukkah, Ciporen's family reads holiday-themed books and makes time for fellowship. "It is a time to share family stories because we're all so far-flung and don't see each other often," she says. "It's a great way to catch up. And everyone, even the little ones, is asked to share."

Don Kain

Active Celebrations

Another way to take your mind off food: Do something active, which will have the nice side effect of bringing your blood glucose down a bit. Just because you have diabetes doesn't mean you should go at it alone. "There are enough people who are challenged, not just with diabetes but also [with] weight gain," says Don Kain, MA, RD, LD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center of Oregon Health & Science University. "Two thirds of the country's either overweight or obese." And exercise will benefit your whole family.

Sarah Condon

For Sarah Condon, 26, a student at Wayne State University, Thanksgiving starts with the Turkey Trot, a 10K fund-raiser race in Detroit that's held every year to benefit people who can't afford a Thanksgiving dinner. "It's just so much fun to wake up bright and early and run with a bunch of people," says Condon, who has type 1 diabetes. Aside from helping less fortunate people by running, Condon also helps her blood glucose control by exercising prior to eating. "My blood sugar tends to drop drastically," she says, "and that's usually when my family serves dinner."

Though tackling a 10K sounds intimidating, Condon does it annually despite the fact that she doesn't run during the rest of the year. Most people with diabetes can follow her lead by doing some form of exercise—no, it doesn't have to be a race—before the big meal. (Check with your doctor, though, if it's a major change in your fitness routine.) Recruit family members for a Thanksgiving game of touch football. Take a group for a walk or a hike. If there's snow on the ground, go sledding with the kids.

Helping Others

Volunteering is a great way to make this time of year special. "We have no more kids at home," says Cathy Jacobson, 59, of Aberdeen, S.D., who has type 2 diabetes. For the past six years, Jacobson's children have lived too far away to make the trek home during South Dakota's harsh winters. "We needed to make some adjustments in our attitudes on what the holiday was really about, and did we have to [center it on a big meal] just because everyone else does?"

She and her husband, Bill, decided to dedicate the days before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter to volunteer work at a local Salvation Army shelter. Her husband, a chef, cooks dinner while Jacobson and other volunteers serve hungry diners. Later, the Jacobsons and the rest of the group deliver homemade baskets of holiday food to people in the community who were unable to get to the shelter. "I don't have to be standing in the kitchen making food that isn't going to get eaten," she says. "And it's nice to do that for people. That's even better than our joy."

"A lot of the dishes are high in carbohydrates and fat. Don't be ashamed to bring a dish to share."—Sarah Condon

On the day of a holiday, Jacobson and her husband go to a movie or concert to spend time together. As for the holiday meal they eat later that night? "It's less than we'd regularly have. You're really tired of cooking. It's not about the food. I don't think we'll ever go back to stuffing our faces."

Looking for Meaning

Most holidays commemorate an event that was so meaningful our ancestors decided to keep celebrating it centuries after it occurred. (As for the others? You can thank the greeting-card industry.) And yet so many people with diabetes spend the holiday stressing about the type of food a get-together might offer, feeling jealous over the food others can eat without counting carbs and dosing insulin, and feeling guilty for eating too much.

"Above all, I try to keep holidays in perspective. They are, after all, just a day. And I give myself permission for my diabetes to not be as well controlled as it could be, knowing that the holiday will pass and I can then get back on track."—Jen Nash

You don't have to cycle through those emotions. "It's really got to be about something else," says Jacobson. "We've got to find something that isn't food-related, [like] sitting down and playing games. If it were all about the food, I'd be 200 pounds heavier than I am now. "

Take stock of your life: the people sitting around the table you're grateful to see, the day you get off from work, the insulin or oral medications that allow you to splurge a bit on a holiday. "[A holiday is] about being with family and being thankful with what you have," says Condon. "It's a celebration of life and giving thanks."



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