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Holiday Planning for Diabetes Part 1: Simple Holiday Meal Planning

Written by: Amy Grobe, RD, CDE
Nutrition Coach

Oh, holiday season!  Does that phrase make you smile with anticipation or cringe with dread?  Many of us feel added pressure of trying to make everything “perfect” for the holidays.  When you add managing your diabetes to your “to do” list, it’s understandable if you feel overwhelmed, especially when it comes to trying to follow a healthy meal plan.

Let’s be realistic this year when it comes to holiday dining

Do I recommend keeping an eye on your plate and watching your portion sizes?  Absolutely! Should you show up for Thanksgiving dinner with pumpkin pie in one hand and a measuring cup in the other?  Of course not!  Rather than creating more stress for yourself by worrying about what you should and should not eat, follow these simple tips so that no matter where you are eating this holiday season, your meal is balanced and your blood sugars are on target!

Nutrition 101

Foods that have similar nutrient content are typically grouped together to make meal planning easier. For example, a one-ounce serving of most breads contains about 80 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrates and 1-3 grams of fat.  When it comes to meal planning for diabetes management, classify the foods you plan to eat into their correct food group in order to use this portion control technique, called the “Plate Method.”

The foods that contain carbohydrates—grains, breads and starches, fruits, dairy and combination foods –are the foods that will affect your blood sugar, so this is where portion control is essential.

Portion control at your finger tips—no tools required!

To begin building a balanced holiday meal, imagine a line drawn down the middle of your 9-inch plate, dividing it in half.  Next, imagine one of the halves divided in half again so that you have three sections (one half and two quarters).  Foods in the grains and starches group (breads, pasta, rice, stuffing, potatoes, corn, peas, beans) go in one of the smaller sections of the plate, which is about 1/4 of the size of the plate. Since starches and breads affect blood sugar levels, it is important to limit your portion size.  This serving is about 1 cup or roughly the size of your fist.  A serving of protein (turkey, ham, beef, fish, lamb, eggs, tofu) goes in the other smaller section of your plate.  Proteins do not generally affect your blood sugar levels, but portion control is still important to help prevent holiday weight gain!

Fill the large section of the plate with salad greens, broccoli, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, peppers or other non-starchy vegetables. Since these vegetables are so low in carbohydrates and calories, your portion size can be larger than your serving of starches.  Your balanced meal when completed would look like this:

Try eating your vegetables at the start of your meal; they are generally very bulky and will help fill you up quickly, which leaves less room in your stomach for those high-calorie foods!

Filling Your Holiday Plate

Now let’s apply this principle to some holiday examples using the “Plate Method.”  The chart below are examples of several typical holiday meals, and how they are classified by food groups.  Keep in mind that combination foods are generally counted as carbohydrates.

Once we’ve figured out which section of the plate each food should go, it’s time to fill the plate!  The great thing about using the Plate Method is no foods are off limits or forbidden, but rather all foods are okay in moderation.  And you are not limited to only one food from each category; you can taste a little of everything as long as it fits into its section on the plate.

What about dessert?

Don’t think I forgot about the pumpkin pie or fruit cobbler!  Since most desserts tend to be rich in carbohydrates, plan ahead and factor that into your total carbohydrate allotment for the meal.  Perhaps you can take a smaller serving of a food in the grain group such as stuffing or mashed potatoes and skip the fruit with your meal in order to have a small serving of pie for dessert.  So after you put your plate together, it would look like this:

Now you see how we the Plate Method was applied for Thanksgiving, and how it also can easily be adapted for Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s or other holiday meals!

Can I use the Plate Method to estimate carbohydrates if I’m taking insulin?

If you take insulin with your meals, it is best to speak with your physician and diabetes educator to ensure you can correctly adjust your insulin dosage. The most accurate way to know exactly how many carbohydrate grams you are eating is by measuring your portions.  However, if you will be using the Plate Method to estimate your carbohydrate intake and adjust your own insulin dosage based on the amount of carbohydrates you eat, you may want to practice eyeballing portion sizes ahead of time to make it easier on the holiday.

Some general carbohydrate estimating tips:

  • One cup of pasta, rice or stuffing (about the size of a baseball) each contains 45 grams of carbohydrates.
  • A half-cup serving of mashed potatoes, corn or peas (about the size of an ice cream scoop) contains 15 grams of carbohydrates.
  • A baked potato (about the size of a computer mouse) contains 30 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Keep in mind that the carbohydrate recommendation for most female adults is 45-60 grams and for most male adults is 60-75 grams per meal.

See the end of this article for several websites that can help with estimating carbohydrates.

How can I categorize a combination food like lasagna using the Plate Method?  It has noodles (grains), tomato sauce (vegetable) and cheese (protein) so I’m not sure which part of the plate it fits into.

If the food contains any form of carbohydrates, it’s best to put that food in the ‘grains’ section of the plate since it will affect your blood sugar.  A safe way to account for meals like this is to limit the serving to about 1/4 to 1/3 of your plate and then fill the remaining part of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.

How does alcohol fit into the Plate Method?

Although you may find this surprising, alcohol is not considered a starch or carbohydrate!  When alcohol is digested by the body, it is metabolized more like a fat than a carbohydrate, so you would not count alcohol as part of your carbohydrates.  In terms of calorie content, alcohol is more similar to fat than to carbohydrates or protein.

Here are some popular alcoholic drinks, along with their calories and carbohyrate counts:

Drink                                                   Calories                      Carbohydrates (grams)

Cider, 12 ounces                                   150-200                      12-27
Egg nog, 8 ounces                                 343                             34
Hot buttered rum, 8 ounces                   316                              11
Tom & Jerry, 8 ounces                           358                              50-60
Kahula & Cream, 4 ounces                    260                             32
Peppermint Hot Chocolate, 6 ounces    203                              32
Red wine, 4 ounces                              100                              4
White wine, 4 ounces                            85-95                          2-4
Champagne, 4 ounces                           85                                2
Mimosa, 4 ounces                                  65                                7
Cosmopolitan                                         215                              12
Frozen daiquiri                                      140-155                       4-6
Margarita                                               160                               7

Is it ok for me to have alcohol with my meal if I have diabetes?  How does alcohol affect my blood sugar?

Drinking alcohol with diabetes can put you at risk for having hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, especially if you are taking oral medications and/or insulin. Your liver stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen (or stored carbohydrates), and when your blood sugar level starts to drop, the liver is signaled to release the glycogen into the blood stream to bring the blood sugar levels back up.  However, when there is any alcohol in the body, the liver is working to metabolize the alcohol and is not able to regulate blood sugar levels at the same time, meaning that if your blood sugar is low, it will continue to drop.

To be safe, always ask your doctor if it is safe to drink alcohol.  If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, make sure to eat something that has carbohydrates to prevent hypoglycemia.  Lastly, since the effects of alcohol can last hours, test your blood sugar before going to bed.  If it is under 100 mg/dL, have a snack that contains around 15 grams of carbohydratesto maintain your blood sugar levels overnight.  Here are a few  good snack choices:

  • whole wheat crackers with peanut butter
  • 1 slice whole wheat bread with either peanut butter or 1 slice cheese
  • ½ cup high fiber cereal with ½ cup low fat milk

The true meaning of the holidays

The true holiday spirit means being surrounded by loved ones and giving thanks for all of life’s blessings, including health.  And let’s be realistic: food is a big part of the festivities.  Having diabetes does not mean that you cannot or should not participate in such happy times; you deserve to enjoy your time as much as anyone else!  Using the Plate Method adds to the simplicity of managing your food portions and blood sugars so that you can spend more time enjoying the holidays.

And let us not forget the true meaning of the holidays: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilder

How do you simplify your carbohydrate portions, and keep your blood glucose on target during the holiday season? Share your ideas in the comments section!

For more information about holiday meal planning:

For more information about carbohydrate counting:

For more information about alcohol and diabetes:

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  1. Holiday Planning for Diabetes Part 2:How to Prevent Roller Coaster Blood Sugars During the Holidays | Fit4D Diabetes Blog – Tips from Certified Diabetes Educators - December 17, 2011

    […] This article is the second part to our guide on managing your diabetes during the holidays.  This week, we will talk about maintaining your blood sugars in target range during the busy holiday season.  Click here for Part 1, which shows how you can easily create a healthy diabetes plate during the h… […]

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