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Hacking Your Holiday Eating


At this point, you’ve made it past the Halloween candy. You’ve gotten through Thanksgiving dinner — and dessert — without a problem. But now, you’re squarely in the holiday [eating] season, complete with fruitcake, gingerbread cookies, and holiday party punch.

Each year around this time, we start to see articles about the calorie count in a Thanksgiving feast, as tallied by Consumer Reports; hacks for how to avoid holiday weight gain as seen in the Los Angeles Times; and substitute ingredients for making healthier holiday treats, as suggested by SELF magazine. For many, the worry of holiday eating stops at the waistline – the fear that they might pick up an extra pound or two of “insulation” this winter is enough to keep them from going back for the second slice of pie – but for those with diabetes, eating disorders, or those battling obesity, there is far more of a risk associated with these indulgences.

More than 29 million Americans are living with diabetes, another 86 million are classified as pre-diabetic, and one-third of the United States population is considered obese, which means a significant number of Americans should be keeping an extra close eye on their holiday eating habits.

Linda Sartor, RD, CDE, LDN, diabetes nutritionist and educator for the Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center, shared some guidelines to help folks navigate the season.

First, Sartor suggests grabbing the calendar and circling all of the holiday days – include holiday parties, work functions, dinners with friends, etc. Make these your only “splurge” days.

The next important step also falls in this “preparation” phase. Sartor says diabetic patients who focus on getting blood sugar under control leading up to the holiday season will have an easier time keeping it under control when they’re in the throes of it. She also tells her patients to practice deep breathing, meditation or yoga to manage stress and avoid food cravings, and most importantly, to get lots of exercise.

Another piece of advice addresses the ever-looming monster: carbohydrates.

“To get your blood sugar under control and to lose weight, aim to consume 30 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15 or less per snack,” she said. “Protein and healthy fats are really vital to balance blood sugar, so try snacking on hard boiled eggs, leftover turkey, a quarter of an avocado or some nuts (12 to 24) instead of cookies and candy.”

To put carbohydrates into perspective, your average dinner roll has about 13 grams; there are roughly 16 grams in one sugar cookie; about 20 grams in one cup of egg nog; and approximately 35 grams of carbohydrates in a cup of mashed potatoes. It adds up fast!

But for those who love sweets, try doing your own baking and substitute ingredients as much as you can (see aforementioned SELF magazine story).

“High carbohydrate foods such as starches or desserts can be a big challenge for most people, including bariatric patients, and especially at this time of year with so many high-risk situations like family and work parties,” said Colleen Tewksbury, MPH, RD, LDN, Bariatric Surgery program manager. “One of the most important things we tell our patients is to have a plan and stick to it, which can include preparing their own meals and doing their own baking. When they have control over the ingredients being used, they have more control over what they’re eating.”

Sartor says to start making a plan, think about what you have going on and what you did last year around this time so you will be in control both of your eating and meal planning.

Kelly Allison, PhD, an associate professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and director of Clinical Services at Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, said she recommends these planning tips for my patients who have a hard time keeping their weight or eating habits under control at the holidays: “Try not to skip meals so you avoid feeling too hungry and risk losing control; try to freeze extra food or store it away in sealed containers or in the basement or garage so that you have to make more deliberate decisions about whether you really want to eat it; and finally, figure out what holiday treats you really want to enjoy and steer clear of eating foods just because they are there.”

Sartor, Tewksbury, and Allison also suggest offering to make a healthy dish for a holiday party, as having some control over the food available at a party will mean you are in control of what you eat. And if all else fails, just practice a simple phrase: “No, thank you.”

The most important thing to remember at the holidays, whether you have diabetes, are battling obesity, or you’re just looking to stave off the holiday weight, is that you can and should enjoy your favorite foods, but, the key is to do so in moderation, as part of a balanced, healthy meal.

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