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How to Have a Diabetes-Friendly Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner

Let’s face it: For many of us, Thanksgiving is all about food. The more, the better.

But many traditional Thanksgiving dishes—from sweet candied yams to creamy green bean casserole—are a nightmare for people with diabetes.

Fortunately, there are lots of easy ways to make Thanksgiving healthier, says Paula S. Barry, MD, a physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood.

Tips for a Diabetes-Friendly Thanksgiving

Here are a few tips for a diabetes-friendly Thanksgiving that everyone can enjoy.

Watch out for food traps

Many Thanksgiving dishes are carbohydrate-heavy, posing a danger for people with diabetes. It’s not just sugary desserts to be wary of: Even side dishes like cranberry sauce are usually not diabetes-friendly.

And, as Dr. Barry points out, people with diabetes might also have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This can be problematic when a Thanksgiving meal has lots of high-fat and sodium-rich foods.

“Keep your consumption in moderation,” Dr. Barry suggests. “Try to have one plate—and no seconds.”

Keep your portion sizes very low for these high-carb favorites:

  • Mashed potatoes
  • Candied yams
  • Sweet potato casserole

Or avoid them altogether, Dr. Barry suggests. The same goes for stuffing: “If you have any, make it just a small amount, because it’s very high in carbohydrates.”

Opt for diabetic-friendly recipes and simple food substitutions

If someone else is hosting Thanksgiving, Dr. Barry suggests you offer to bring a diabetes-friendly dish as a healthier option.

There are plenty of ways to make simple substitutions to transform your Thanksgiving into a healthier eating experience.

“Most people think of turkey as a good food—and it can be. The big thing is to try to have it roasted instead of fried. And keep portion sizes appropriate,” she explains.

If you want to have appetizers, stick to basic vegetables like fresh celery and carrots. These foods are not carb-heavy, and they can fill you up a bit before the meal.

“In general, it’s a good idea to stick with more greens: salad, green beans, asparagus, or spinach. These are less starchy vegetables,” says Dr. Barry.

And, as with turkey, it’s all in how you prepare these foods. That means going with sautéed spinach rather than creamed spinach. And if there’s going to be a salad, put the dressing on the side, so your guests can control how much they consume.

What About Dessert?

It’s okay to have a small amount of pumpkin pie, but try to eat fewer carbs during the meal to make room for dessert, Dr. Barry suggests. Also, be aware of the amount of alcohol you consume—and minimize it.

“Not only are alcoholic drinks full of carbs, they can interact with certain medications, too,” Dr. Barry says.

Stick to your normal schedule and eating routine


Another tip: Stay well hydrated throughout the day. And after the meal, go for a walk to stay active.

Ultimately, Dr. Barry says, “If you make Thanksgiving more about spending time with family and friends, it’s something everyone can enjoy—regardless of whether they have diabetes.”

No matter what time of the year it is, if you’re struggling with diabetes, a Penn Medicine physician can help you make every day and every meal diabetes-friendly.

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