Healthy Thanksgiving Dinner Tips for People With Diabetes

Plate with greenbeans, mashed potatoes, turkey, and cranberries

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Holidays like Thanksgiving, which are centered around sharing an abundance of food with family and friends, aren't always easy 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. It can be difficult when the entire day becomes one long smorgasbord of eating.

The good news is that you can still enjoy Thanksgiving while watching what you eat—you only need a small amount of preparation and some creative thinking. Here's how to ace holiday eating while sustaining your health.

Make a Game Plan

A wide variety of foods make up the typical Thanksgiving dinner. Several kinds of side dishes, old family favorites, and often many different desserts are on the table, beckoning you to try each and every one of them.

But do you have to eat them all? Of course not—especially if you plan 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 not hosting the holiday meal, offer to bring a low-calorie, lower-carbohydrate dish or two. Consider a green bean and sliced almond dish, cauliflower mashed "potatoes," or crispy roasted Brussels sprouts, to name a few. Whether you are the host or a guest, there are many diabetes-friendly recipes you can incorporate into turkey day.

How to Politely Say No

There are a number of ways to effectively stick to your goals over Thanksgiving. First, keep in mind that people are probably much 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). For that helpful relative trying to foist a second helping on your plate, 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." For anyone who's pushy, excuse yourself for a quick bathroom or backyard break. They'll likely be focused on something else by the time you return. Remember that you are not required to explain your choices if doing so makes you uncomfortable.

Thanksgiving Meal Dos and Don'ts

No matter where Thanksgiving takes place, the easiest way to limit food intake is by carefully checking your portion size. Leftovers are likely, so you'll probably be able to have the same food again the next day, if not throughout next week. So take smaller portions of each offering rather than fill your plate.

If Thanksgiving is at your house, you have control over what goes into or stays out of the food. If your family loves a few higher-calorie traditions, search for ways to make them more nutritious—by adding vegetables, reducing the amount of fat, and making baking substitutions. Here are a few additional ideas on what to avoid, and what to savor guilt-free.

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
Sweet desserts Apple, lemon, pumpkin, or berry-based desserts
White turkey meat (no skin) Dark turkey meat
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 dried fruit (no added sugar)
Focus on enjoying Thanksgiving with these food swaps.

Help Yourself to Some Turkey

When it comes time to build your plate, don't forget about the turkey. We often overstuff ourselves on appetizers so much that we miss out on the main course. Aim to reduce your intake of pre-meal snacks (chips, cheese, dips, etc.) and appetizers so that you have an appetite for some of the healthier choices, like turkey. Turkey is a good source of protein, and high in niacin, phosphorous, selenium, vitamin B6, and zinc. It is also all protein and has zero grams of carbohydrates (which means it won't spike your blood sugar). A 3-ounce serving of white 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.

Don't Stuff Yourself on Stuffing

Stuffing can pack a calorie, fat, and carbohydrate wallop. The main ingredients in stuffing are bread and butter, and most of the time, recipes call for added calorie-dense ingredients, such as sausage. Understandably, if it's your favorite side dish and you look forward to it all year, by all means, take some, but try to keep your portion in check (about 1/2 cup).

If you have control over how the stuffing is made, there are other ways to make stuffing healthier: try substituting fat-free chicken or veggie broth for some or most of the butter goes a long way toward cutting fat and calories. Also, try using whole-grain bread, then adding generous amounts of chopped vegetables (such as celery, carrots, onion, and cauliflower), nuts, and pumpkin, chia, or sunflower seeds—they will help make your stuffing substantially healthier, more filling, and less likely to affect blood sugar.

Start a New Tradition

It's easy to pack in the calories when you're sitting at the table all day long surrounded by food. Take some of the spotlight off the food by engaging in some sort of physical activity. Consider doing a turkey trot before heading to your destination or suggest an after-dinner walk around the neighborhood. Once dinner is complete or between courses get the group involved in a game of charades or other group activities, to get your blood moving. Engaging in another activity will also keep you occupied so you don't pick at leftovers or succumb to that second piece of pie.

A Word From Verywell

Having diabetes doesn't mean your holiday is going to be doomed. You can enjoy the food and the company while sticking to your health goals. All you need is a plan of action—limit picking, help yourself to the vegetables and turkey, enjoy a small amount of your favorite healthy dessert, and move a bit. You will feel satisfied and content with your choices, all while maintaining good energy and blood sugar.

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