Thanksgiving Tips for People With Diabetes

Thanksgiving and other holidays that center on sharing an abundance of food can be a challenge for someone who has diabetes. Many of the traditional foods on the table, such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, are rich and laden with calories and carbohydrates. But with creative thinking and careful planning, a person with diabetes can eat, drink, and celebrate along with friends and family while still keeping blood sugar under control.

Full Homemade Thanksgiving Dinner
bhofack2 / Getty Images

Have a Game Plan

The typical Thanksgiving dinner features an abundance of choices, but just because there are a multitude of side dishes and desserts on the table doesn't mean you have to partake of every one of them.

To avoid the temptation to do that, decide in advance what you're going to eat. Strategic planning can help you make good choices and keep your carbohydrate intake steady.

If you're hosting the meal, it will be easy to make sure there are low-calorie, low-carb options on the table. Even inherently rich dishes can be made diabetes-friendly by adding vegetables, reducing added fats and sugars, and making baking substitutions.

For diabetes-friendly stuffing:

  • Substitute fat-free chicken or veggie broth for some or most of the butter.
  • Use whole-grain bread.
  • Add generous amounts of chopped vegetables (such as celery, carrots, onion, and cauliflower), nuts, and pumpkin, chia, or sunflower seeds.

How to Make Herbed Turkey Meat Loaf with Balsamic Brussels Sprouts

If you are not hosting, offer to bring a few dishes that fit into your meal plan that you know others will enjoy. Who could turn down a simple side dish of green beans tossed with toasted sliced almonds, a pumpkin-cauliflower soup, or a salad based on Brussels sprouts?

Thanksgiving: Foods to enjoy and limit
Limit Enjoy
Plain store-bought stuffing Whole-wheat, veggie-filled stuffing
Creamy mashed potatoes Roasted carrots, green beans, and other veggies
White bread and processed flours Whole grain bread and whole wheat and nut flours
Sweet potatoes or yams with marshmallow topping Sweet potatoes with egg meringue topping
Canned cranberry sauce Cranberry compote sweetened with stevia
Focus on enjoying Thanksgiving with these food swaps.

Smart Strategies

Food choices aside, there are other tactics you can use to in order to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal without allowing your blood glucose levels to spike.

Watch portions: Learn how to eyeball serving sizes in order to stay within your calorie- and carb limits.

Don't fill up on appetizers: Bypass the chips and dips. If you need to munch before the meal, go for crudite and other finger foods that are low in carbs and calories.

Focus on the turkey: Turkey is carb-free, a lean source of protein, and high in niacin, phosphorous, selenium, vitamin B6, and zinc. A 3-ounce serving of dark meat turkey breast contains roughly 87 calories, 15 grams of protein, and 3 grams of carbohydrates. The key to eating turkey is to avoid drowning it in gravy—a tablespoon or two is fine.

Stiff the stuffing: The main ingredients in traditional stuffing are bread and butter and, often, fat-and-calorie-dense ingredients like sausage. By all means have some, but try to keep your portion to 1/2 cup.

How to Politely Say No

If you anticipate being urged to eat foods that don't fit into the parameters of your eating plan, come prepared with strategies for pushing back politely. Do keep in mind people likely are less concerned with your food choices than you are—if you don't mention it, they may well not even notice what you're choosing to eat (or not eat).

That said, to a well-meaning loved one urging you to take second helpings, a smile and a pleasant "No, thank you" should do the trick. You could also say "I'm enjoying what I already have," or "I'm saving room for dessert."

To handle overt pushiness, excuse yourself for a bathroom break. By the time you return the person likely will be focused on something else. Most important: Remember you are not required to explain your choices if doing so makes you uncomfortable.

Start a New Tradition

It's easy to pack in the calories when you're sitting at the table all day. Take some of the spotlight off the food by engaging in some sort of physical activity, such as pre-meal a turkey trot or walk around the neighborhood. Once dinner is complete or between courses get the group involved in charades or another activity to keep your blood moving.  Ultimately you'll feel satisfied and content with your choices, all while maintaining good energy and blood sugar.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Debra Manzella, RN
Debra Manzella, MS, RN, is a corporate clinical educator at Catholic Health System in New York with extensive experience in diabetes care.