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Watching What You Eat? How to Navigate Meals This Holiday Season

Nov. 20, 2023 – Getting together with friends and family around the holidays can be joyous, awkward, or sometimes both. It’s largely expected that you will overindulge around Thanksgiving and throughout the holidays. It’s almost an American pastime to overeat this time of year. 

But what if you’ve been losing excess weight and don’t want to give up your hard-won progress? What if you’re the only one with diabetes at a large holiday meal? 

WebMD asked nutrition and diabetes experts for their tips on navigating these and other challenges. They explain not only best practices to avoid overeating, but how to pass the serving dish without insulting a guest or host or having to explain to everyone why you’re skipping dessert. 

“Many people find themselves in situations surrounded by food, and it can be overwhelming if people are trying to stay on a weight management plan that practices portion control,” said Beverly Tchang, MD, a medical weight management expert with the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. 

Stick to your strengths. “Many people do better with the flexibility to indulge on occasion, while others feel they do best to stay on track regardless of special events. People should do what works best for them,” continued Tchang, who is also a spokesperson for the Obesity Society.

A Perfect Storm?

“Indulgent meals, heaping portions, holiday parties … it’s no surprise the festive season presents even more challenges to maintain a healthy lifestyle than throughout the rest of the year,” said Florencia Ziemke, MD, an obesity expert, nutrition, health and wellness advocate, and founder and medical director of Evexia Medical in Jupiter, FL. 

It’s not just the overabundance of food. Less sleep and less exercise due to busy schedules and the added stress of holiday planning and commitments can add to the challenges of staying healthy this time of year. 

“Combined, these factors seem like an inevitable recipe for weight gain,” said Ziemke, who is also a spokesperson for the Obesity Society. The average adult in Western societies gains about 1 to 2 pounds per year, and most of that is gained over the holiday season.

Responding to ‘Food Pushers’

A good start is going into holiday gatherings with a game plan, Ziemke said. Avoid showing up hungry, order first and lead by example, eat slowly, and pause between each bite, for example. 

Another tip is to bring your own healthy dish to share. “This way, you can guarantee you’ll have something to eat that aligns with your weight goals.” It does not have to be steamed broccoli or a fattening dessert you wouldn’t have at home. “Bring something you would enjoy,” Tchang suggested. 

Holiday gatherings are social situations, so there can be social pressure to eat indulgent foods and sweets. How can someone focused on managing their weight and/or a guest who just wants to eat healthier politely decline cookies, pie, or cake without insulting the host?

Oftentimes, we refer to them as “food pushers,” Ziemke said. She recommends politely refusing or taking a small portion of an item you are trying to avoid. Another tip is to start a conversation and open up to friends or family about your healthy eating goals. That way, you might gain support and healthy eating allies.

No Obligation to Weigh In

What if the host or another guest sees says, “C’mon, it’s the holidays. It’s OK to treat yourself.“ It might even be someone who can’t relate to living with overweight or obesity challenges or is trying to manage their weight.

Tchang said it’s up to each individual how much they want to disclose or share. “Obesity is a medical disease. It should be treated as a private matter just like any other health issue,” she said. 

It can also be treated as an opportunity to educate others. 

“My patients have powerful voices, and if they choose to share their stories, I think more people will understand the biological challenge we face when treating obesity,” she said. 

A Sweeter Time of Year, for Some

People with diabetes can face some unique challenges over the holidays. 

“Stick to a routine as best you can,” said Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Sticking to a schedule for eating, when possible, can help manage blood sugar levels, she said.

“No skipping meals or going too long without. Aim to have balanced meals throughout the day – no saving up and having more carbs later on,” she said.

“The key takeaway point is to plan.” For example, if you know that a holiday dinner isn’t until later than your normally scheduled mealtime, that might be when a snack will enter the mix. 

Just like people without diabetes, managing stress around the holidays remains crucial. 

“Make sure to include outlets for the stress … as stress can wreak havoc on one’s blood sugar levels. Meditate, journal, go for a walk, exercise – all ways to help manage the stress, but also might just help manage one’s blood sugar levels as well,” Kimberlain said. 

Before you attend a holiday get-together, “check to see if you can see what’s on the menu so you know what all the options are,” she said. 

After you arrive, “try not to hang around the food table – it’s human nature to continue grazing if the food is so close by. Rather, serve yourself and eat somewhere else,” she said. Also, stay hydrated with water throughout the day.

While these general tips are good for people with diabetes to keep in mind, Kimberlain said, “it is best if they speak to their health care provider for individual recommendations.”


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