Navigating the Holidays With Diabetes

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Navigating the Holidays With Diabetes

The most wonderful time of the year is finally here! Because food and celebrations are plentiful, holiday time may wreak havoc with your usual schedule and potentially affect your daily diabetes management. Social gatherings (both online or in-person), shopping, gift giving and traditional holiday fare are a lot to juggle. From Halloween to New Year’s Day, we seem to have endless to-do lists added to our typical daily activities. If you feel overwhelmed or disorganized during the holiday season, you’re not alone.

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But not to worry — there are ways to navigate the festivities while maintaining your health and sanity. Try these tips and strategies to boost your mood and guide you through the holiday season.

Tips to navigate the holidays with diabetes

Ground yourself with gratitude

Shelby Kinnaird, host of Cook & Chat With Shelby, has been thriving with type 2 diabetes for over 21 years. Kinnaird shares, “As a busy person, I find it’s extremely helpful to ground myself with gratitude. Every morning, I partake in a five-minute grateful journal [exercise]. I write down three things I’m grateful for and three ideas for an awesome day ahead. Before bed, I write down three memorable moments of that day. Try it! It will help keep you focused, motivated and positive amid the chaos of the holidays.”

Get organized

Even the most organized person may feel disorganized during the holidays. Have you tried making a master holiday to-do list? Create a list of everything you need to do and want to get done for the holidays. Whether you write your task list in a notebook, on your smartphone or on a bulletin board in the kitchen or home office, make sure your list is in one place and easily accessible. Use a calendar to create deadlines. Once you have your main list of must-do tasks, break them into smaller tasks and place deadlines for each on your calendar.

Bonus tip

Write down everything in a paper calendar (or on your phone) to help keep track of appointments and events. You can even fit in physical activity or workouts. Make appointments with yourself. This will give you peace of mind and a plan during this busy time of year.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water to keep yourself well-hydrated. Continue to drink water when the weather turns frosty or when you are extremely busy. Thirst is not always a great indicator of when to take a drink. As a matter of fact, by the time you’re thirsty, you might already be slightly dehydrated. Try some sparkling water instead of champagne. It looks festive and can be substituted for extra glasses of alcohol.

Bonus tip

Traveling? Freeze water bottles the night before you leave. If you plan to travel by car, a frozen water bottle will help keep perishables cold and give you ample liquids while traveling.

Be prepared for the diabetes food police

Have you been harassed by a friend or relative who acts like the “diabetes food monitor” (aka the “food police”) at a holiday gathering? These are folks who feel the need to comment on or question your food choices. Aunt Edna might announce that she also has diabetes and her doctor told her only to eat white meat turkey and plain green beans over the holiday. She might even make this statement while glaring in your direction.

While some may turn this encounter into an educational moment about diabetes management, actor and comedian Jim Turner, who has been living with type 1 diabetes for over 50 years, shares his own experience and advice: “I’ve been very lucky. My family and most of my friends know not to poke their nose where it doesn’t belong. However, there is the occasional nosy poker in the world of food police and diabetes police and other cultural police. My response is always the same. I listen politely, and I say, ‘Thank you so much. I appreciate that. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll try it your way. Thank you.’ Then I change the conversation. If the conversation persists, I politely and quickly change company.”

Get physical

Exercise can be a great mood booster and may reduce stress. If you are not keen on going to the gym, check out the plentiful YouTube and Instagram exercise videos and workouts available for every fitness level. Take a class or yoga session.

Write your scheduled exercise time in your planner, jot it down on your calendar or load it on your smartphone. Physical activity is one appointment that shouldn’t be postponed or taken off the calendar.

On Thanksgiving morning, consider participating in a fun run or walk. Many communities host Turkey Trots for charity, and there are lots of virtual options available this year. You’ll cross the finish line and be home in time to eat your festive meal.

Author, speaker and athlete Ginger Vieira was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and celiac disease over 20 years ago. While working from home, she balances her work, caring for her young children and an ever-changing exercise program, even during the holidays. Vieira says, “In the winter, the kids and I run around in the snow. There’s no easier way to get your heart pumping in the winter than trudging through snow in your snow pants. I bundle up from head to toe even for dog walks to ensure the cold temperatures don’t get in the way of exercising. I’ll also put on a jacket and gloves to stay warm while jumping rope in the garage. If you ditch the excuses, there’s always a way to stay active no matter what the season.”

Plan ahead and check your blood sugar

Vieira acknowledges the importance of potential medication adjustments and frequent blood sugar checks. According to her, “On the specific day of a holiday, like Thanksgiving, I increase my background (basal) insulin dose by a unit or two to help compensate for the extra calories and more indulgent meals. Before that day and before that holiday meal, I really try to stick to the basics: Get plenty of exercise every day and eat mostly very healthy food, so there’s room for indulging in yummy holiday treats. I also check my blood sugar more after those meals. Also, keep in mind how slowly that big holiday meal might digest. If you take your entire meal dose at the time of eating, you’ll likely go low. On Thanksgiving, for example, I spread a huge meal bolus out over the course of four or five hours because the high-fat, high-protein, and high-carbohydrate goodies are going to digest very slowly.”

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation

Alcohol can significantly affect your blood glucose. For one thing, it may impact the ability of your liver to regulate blood glucose levels. In addition, it can interfere with medications you may have been prescribed for diabetes management and other health conditions. Be sure not to drink on an empty stomach, as alcohol can also impair decision-making as well as reduce your ability to make informed decisions about food choices and portions. And remember that the calories and carbohydrate content (especially for fruity cocktails) can vary significantly among beverages. Recommendations for alcohol are no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men. (An example of one drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of distilled spirits.) Speak with your healthcare professional for individual guidance on alcohol consumption.

Bonus tip

Take a liquid measuring cup and a wine glass out of your cabinet at home. Measure out 5 ounces of water (which is the recommended serving of wine) and pour it into the wine glass. Now you will have a visual awareness of what a serving of wine is supposed to look like. Remember, you can decide when to say “stop” if a friend or relative is pouring a glass of wine for you at a holiday gathering.

Get enough shut-eye

A good night’s sleep is one of the keys to good health. If you don’t get enough sleep, you simply may not feel your best. Have you ever confused fatigue with hunger and eaten more food when sleep-deprived? Overindulging in food rather than getting enough sleep may lead to unwanted weight gain and fluctuating blood sugar levels.

If possible, try to keep to a regular bedtime routine. Go to sleep and wake up at approximately the same time every day. While this can be challenging during the holidays, it can help improve your slumber. Try to avoid excess alcohol and caffeine and turn off all technology (including your smartphone and social media) at least an hour before bedtime. This will reduce your stress and hopefully help you get a restful night’s sleep.

Bonus tip

Keep your room dark. Make sure the shades are drawn and the lights are off. Cover the lights on the cable box or computer if necessary. If any remaining lights bother you, try wearing an eye mask. Keep a flashlight on your nightstand (or next to your bed), so you can check your blood glucose or continuous glucose monitor (CGM) as necessary during the night.

Treat yourself to mini-spa time

Recharge your battery by scheduling some alone time. Enjoy a massage, nature walk, manicure/pedicure, or funny TV show or movie. Begin your day with some deep breathing exercises and a cup of delicious herbal tea.

Jo Jo Dantone, MS, RDN, LDN, ADCES, FAND, is an award-winning registered dietitian/nutritionist who lives life to the fullest with type 1 diabetes. Dantone shares, “Quiet time with yourself is underrated. Everyone needs some time to recharge, especially during the holidays, so claim an afternoon to treat yourself to spa time…even in your own bathroom! Take a bath. Light a candle (I like the ones with the wooden wicks that sound like a fireplace). Turn on spa music, the kind with whales, birds or ocean sounds. I treat myself to a facial mask while soaking in the tub. Then I step back into the real world, but that world has taken on a softer hue, and I can manage it much better.”


Keep connected during the holidays

Janis Roszler, PhD, RDN, LMFT, CDCES, and board-certified sex therapist, reminds us to nurture romantic and social connections during the holidays. Roszler suggests that we partake in at least one type of intimacy (see below) every day to maintain a close connection with our partner, even when times are hectic.

Affection (not sexual): Say, “I love you.” Say, “Thank you.” Give a peck on the cheek, hold hands or enjoy a quick hug.

Emotional: Share your feelings. Use “I” language: “I feel ____ when ____. What I need is ____.”

Social: Go out on a double date or Zoom with others.

Aesthetic: View something of beauty together, like a sunset or a painting.

Intellectual: Discuss different issues or topics. Steer clear of politics if you are on opposite sides of the issue. The goal is to connect, not to move further apart.

Spiritual: Meditate at the same time.

Physical (not sexual): Go for a walk or ride bikes together.

Sexual: Fit in sexual activity at a time that works well for you and your partner.


Focus on friends and family

Nicole Johnson, DrPh, MPH, MA, and Miss America 1999, reminds us of the importance of focusing on family and friends, especially during the holiday season. Johnson, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 27 years ago, says, “2020 has taught us all to slow down and appreciate the little things. This year, I have developed habits that I didn’t know I needed. I take walks twice a day — this is for my diabetes management and for my relationships — and I will continue to do so throughout the holiday season. In the evening, the walk is with my daughter and becomes a time of no distraction and complete connection. The health benefits of this small change are enormous. I can truly say I am happier than I have ever been because of the strength of connections. I have grown to cherish my time of focus on my family. When I’m off from work, even though I work from home, my time off is a sacred respite spent with my daughter and family.”

“During the holidays, I take time to cherish something in nature. I find that by investing in and appreciating the beauty of the world around me, I am more grounded. This means everything from taking photos of flowers to planting in my yard to watching sunsets. This behavior fills my soul with joy and that helps me recharge.”

Want to learn more about maintaining your health during the holidays? Read “Master Holiday Health Pitfalls,” “Have a Relaxing Holiday: 7 Tips to Relieve Seasonal Stress,” “The Holiday Meal Survival Guide” and “Creating New Holiday Traditions.”

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCES

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCES

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCES on social media

Susan Weiner is the owner of Susan Weiner Nutrition, PLLC. She lectures nationally and internationally on nutrition, diabetes, and lifestyle related topics and is the co-author of The Complete Diabetes Organizer and Diabetes: 365 Tips for Living Well. She has authored college textbook chapters on various nutrition topics, as well as dozens of articles for peer reviewed journals and popular press. Weiner earned her Master’s Degree in Applied Physiology and Nutrition from Columbia University.

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