Maintaining Your Health During the Holidays

To many people holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance.

—Philip Andrew Adams

What does the holiday season mean to you? Is it a special time for family gatherings, gift-shopping, and spiritual renewal, or a traumatic time of out-of-control blood glucose levels, extra pounds, and fatigue and stress from trying to engineer the picture-perfect celebration? If you’re like the typical American, your holiday experience is probably a combination of both. According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, one in five Americans worries that holiday stress could affect their physical health, and 36% say they either eat excessively or drink alcohol to cope with holiday stress.


When you have diabetes, it’s important to maintain your good health while enjoying holidays and special occasions, as well as coping with the stress that often accompanies them. The easiest way to do that is to plan ahead. The more you know about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing, the better you can plan for good diabetes care. (For tips on staying healthy during the holidays, see “Bah Humbug to the Flu Bug!”)

Eat, drink, and be wary

Food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, particularly when it’s shared with others, and it tends to play a major role in most holiday celebrations. However, contrary to the popular belief that a person gains 5–10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, research shows that the average person gains only about one pound each holiday season. But that pound often stays on after the holidays are over, so eventually a person may gain 5, 10, or even 20 “holiday” pounds.

The holidays are probably not the best time to attempt a serious weight-loss program, but it is realistic to set a goal of maintaining your weight and blood glucose control during the holiday season. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Make your holiday recipes healthier by reducing their fat and sugar content. (See “Lightening Up Your Holiday Favorites” for tips.)
  • Bring a healthy dish to holiday get-togethers. That way, you can ensure there will be something tasty and nutritious for you to enjoy. Many of your fellow guests will thank you too!
  • Focus on activities that don’t involve food. Attend holiday musicals or plays, plan caroling parties, get friends or family together to wrap gifts, decorate, or shop.
  • Avoid holiday grazing. Calories consumed while tasting food that you’re cooking, clearing the table, and socializing still count. A handful of nuts, a few cheese cubes and crackers, and a bite or two of candy can quickly add up to almost 500 calories. In fact, you may end up eating as much carbohydrate and calories as you would if you sat down and ate an entire meal.
  • Keep carbohydrate consistent. If you’re going to have a holiday treat, substitute it for other carbohydrate in a meal; don’t just add it to your regular foods.
  • Skip the second helpings. Remember that limiting portions is the key to preventing weight gain and helps prevent blood glucose from going out of control.
  • Plan for parties. Having a small snack before a party will take the edge off your hunger and make you less likely to overfill your plate or return to the buffet table for seconds. Once you’ve eaten, focus your energy on socializing with other party guests; just be sure to move your socializing away from the buffet table where the sight or smell of food might tempt you to eat more.
  • Limit alcoholic beverages. Alcohol contains calories and sometimes carbohydrate, depending on your choice of drink. It also lowers your inhibitions, possibly making it harder for you to say no to food you wouldn’t otherwise eat. To sidestep such problems, ask for a no-calorie sparkling water with a lime twist.

On, Prancer and Dancer!

Staying physically active during the holiday season can relieve your stress, improve your mood, lower your blood glucose levels, and help with weight control. While your busy holiday schedule may not allow you to participate in as much daily physical activity as you might like, there are ways to stay active, and these tips can help:

  • Encourage active holiday events. Plan parties around caroling, house decorating, holiday card making, snowman building, or walks to see neighborhood decorations.
  • Your gift shopping trips can help burn calories and lower blood glucose. Park farther away from the mall entrance. Use the store’s stairs, not the escalator. Arrive at the mall a bit early and speed walk around the mall until the stores open.
  • If it’s impossible for you to find a block of 30 minutes each day for physical activity, split your activity into two or three intervals of 10–15 minutes each.
  • Find something to laugh about. Laughing is a great tension reliever. It burns calories, reduces stress, and usually means that you’re enjoying yourself. Research from Japan shows that laughter actually lowers blood glucose after meals. The study suggests that the positive effects of laughter may be due to increased calorie consumption or changes in the neuroendocrine system. Other studies have noted that laughter can help lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and release endorphins.

Keeping spirits bright

Overscheduling, overdoing, overspending…holiday preparations often lead to stress rather than serenity and satisfaction. Stress can affect blood glucose levels in several ways. The stress of overdoing and overscheduling may lead you to neglect your usual self-care plan. The body also reacts to stress by producing hormones that cause the liver to release a surge of glucose, leading to high blood glucose levels. On the other hand, if you are too busy to eat properly, your blood glucose can drop too low.

What tips should you have in your holiday stress survival kit to avoid fluctuations in blood glucose? Here are a few of them:

  • Schedule time for self-care. Regular exercise and time for stress management are a must. Use a pedometer to track your steps, keep an honest food diary for a few days, be sure to continue to check and record your blood glucose results. Find the tools and techniques that work best for you and put them to work.
  • Taking a few deep, slow breaths goes a long way toward helping your body unwind and clearing your mind. Set a timer or post sticky notes in your kitchen or on your computer monitor as a reminder to breathe deeply at least three times a day. Transcend tension in traffic or on your way to a holiday party by taking a few deep breaths, making sure to exhale completely.
  • Put yourself in “time out” for a few moments each day. Just 5–15 minutes of sitting quietly or stretching out on your bed will do wonders for your mood.
  • Knowing your spending limits will also relieve holiday stress. Gifts are meant to be symbols of affection; they don’t necessarily have to be expensive or the latest “must have” gadget. If the “perfect” gift is one you’re going to be paying for for the rest of the year, it may be time to rethink your plan and find a gift that is meaningful and personal but doesn’t break your budget. For some health-related gift ideas, check out “Give the Gift of Good Health.”
  • Keep your expectations realistic. Don’t be disappointed if your celebration doesn’t reflect the fantasy found in holiday carols and television specials. Expect some irritations and imperfections, then relax and have a good time in spite of them.

What’s your reason for the season?

Focus on your reason for the season. Is it the decorations, the spiritual aspects, the music, or the time spent with family and friends? Perhaps this is the year you start a new tradition, such as serving a holiday meal to those less fortunate or escaping to a warm, sunny vacation spot. Do something you’ve never done before. With a bit of planning and attention, diabetes won’t stand in the way of your finding the true spirit of the holidays.