Blood Sugar & Holiday Eating: Tips from an Expert


In this audio story, dietitian & diabetes specialist Tami Ross suggests some recipe swaps for a healthier green bean casserole: using no-salt-added green beans (or draining the liquid the beans come in), and using low-fat cream of mushroom soup.

While there is so much to love about the holidays, they are not always a time without stress. And if you’re someone who is managing high blood sugar—especially from type 2 diabetes or prediabetes—navigating holiday meals can be extra stressful.

So, for anyone who might be keeping their blood sugar in mind this year, we thought we’d reach out to an expert for some tips and thoughts when it comes to holiday eating. And in this audio story (push play above to stream!), we hear from Tami Ross, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist from the University of Kentucky’s Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center. Tami recently wrote an article for the publication UKNow where she shared several helpful strategies for managing your blood sugar over the holidays (click here to read her article!), and as she tells us in this story, her first suggestion is to think about the size of those portions on your plate— and the physical size of your plate itself.

Tami goes on to give advice like: cruising the holiday spread first, to figure out what dishes you might want to prioritize in your calorie count; slowing down and eating more mindfully; considering some recipe swaps (including a great idea for making green been casserole healthier, without sacrificing taste), and more.

Push play above to hear this piece. Or click below to read a full transcript of Tami’s comments.

Music in this story (“Traveling Riverside Blues”) was performed by Don Bikoff, and can be found at the Free Music Archive.

Click here for the full transcript of this story:


[NARRATOR]: So, the days are short, the nights are long, the leaves are gone, and Thanksgiving’s behind us—we are officially in the holiday season. And while there’s of course so much to love about this time of year, it’s not always a season without stress. And if you’re someone who is managing high blood sugar, especially from type 2 diabetes, or prediabetes, navigating holiday meals can be extra stressful.

So, as a part of our ongoing series Prevent Diabetes EKY, for anyone who might be keeping their blood sugar in mind this year, we thought we’d reach out to an expert for some tips and strategies when it comes to holiday meals. So, we spoke by phone last week with Tami Ross, a registered dietitian, and certified diabetes care and education specialist from the University of Kentucky’s Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center. And, when it comes to your blood sugar, the first thing Tami suggested to keep in mind is the size of those portions on your plate.

[TAMI ROSS]: So, you know, we’re in the middle of what I call the ‘holiday eating season’: really, those days between Thanksgiving & New Year’s Day. And in that time, what we see is that people usually consume 500, 600 extra calories a day. And so, by the end of this eating season, that can mean a 6 lb weight gain, on average.

And so, you know, I’m an advocate, there should be a part of life that we enjoy. So it’s figuring out—during these special times when we have lots of different special foods that maybe the family has made, or favorite holiday foods—how to fit those in and still enjoy the food, but do it in a portion-controlled manner. And so, I often will tell my patients, there’s probably not too many foods we’ll tell you to never eat again, but we may talk about ‘let’s just a little smaller portion.’

[NARRATOR]: And when it comes to portions, one thing Tami says to keep in mind is the actual size of the plate you’re using.

[TAMI]: A lot of times, the dinner plates, or if you’re using paper plates at holiday gatherings, they’re often the large platters, or the dinner plates may be 12 or 13 inches. And when you fill that up, you get larger portions. But if you choose a lunch-sized plate, or a salad plate, or even a little dessert-sized plate, it’s going to help downsize your portions. And so that means that you’re going to get fewer calories if you’re managing prediabetes or diabetes and are concerned about carbohydrates, or carbs.

And the other cool thing is, it kind of visually tricks you into thinking that you’re getting larger portions. They appear larger because the plate is full. And so, that’s just a really simple thing that I think any of us can do, is if there’s the option to eat off a smaller plate, to go for that.

[NARRATOR]: Whatever size plate you have, though, when it comes to filling it up, Tami recommends scoping out all of the dishes first, to figure out what you might want the most. And then really trying to slow down and savor every bite, which could help you keep your meal to just that one plate.

[TAMI]: If you’re going to a gathering where there’s a buffet of food, or a potluck, or maybe the spread on the holiday table: really look at everything that’s there. And before filling up your plate with a little of this, a little of that, think about— what foods do you really want? What foods are really worth the calories, or worth the carbohydrates, if you’re managing diabetes or prediabetes? And then go for those foods, rather than kind of filling up on whatever. So, cruising the holiday spread is definitely a tip that I would recommend, and really thinking about—what is worth the calories or the carbs here? And if it’s not worth it, then maybe you just want to bypass and go onto something that you would really enjoy.

Another tip that I’d recommend during the holidays is really keeping it to one plate. It’s a temptation, I know, there’s all kinds of great things that you’re wanting to try. But keeping it to that one plate, and trying to eat more mindfully. And what that means is slowing down, being aware of what you’re eating, really tasting it and savoring the food. And oftentimes, what people find is it’s the first two or three bites of a food that they really enjoy, that they really get satisfaction from. And so, I think, with that, just trying to slow down, put things on your plate that you really will enjoy and that work for you, and then try to keep it to one plate.

[NARRATOR]: In terms of particular foods, when it comes to vegetables, they are not all created equal in how they can affect your blood sugar. Tami recommends prioritizing leafier greens for your meal, instead of starchy vegetables, like potatoes, corn, or beans.

[TAMI]: This strategy that we’re talking about is trying to fill about half of your plate with veggies that are not starchy. And so what we’re talking about here are things [like]— you know, maybe, at a dinner, that would be the crisp green salad. Or, one of my favorites during the holidays is roasted Brussels sprouts. So maybe it’s some salad, choosing some roasted vegetables. Or maybe it’s carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower from the vegetable tray. But those are all vegetables that are not starchy. And so if you try to fill half your plate with those, what that’s gonna do is, first, help you feel full. They’re going to start to fill you up. But they’re very low in calories and have very little carbohydrate. So for folks that are trying to be conscious of calories or manage carbohydrate to help keep blood sugars in their target range, going for more of those non-starchy vegetables, and trying to eat those up front, is really a great strategy.

[NARRATOR]: Now, if you’re someone who’s doing some of the holiday cooking, Tami says another place to think about blood sugar is recipes themselves. But, and importantly, this doesn’t have to mean making trade-offs for taste.

[TAMI]: If you do have favorite holiday dishes—or this may even be favorite foods that you have year-round—but looking at, are there any tiny swaps that we could make to maybe make it a little bit healthier? You know, I know in my family, the green bean casserole with the fried onions on top is a special holiday food. And so, as we think about [it], what could we do to maybe cut a few calories, or trim the fat or sugar, or maybe for folks who are managing blood pressure, trying to cut back the salt a little bit?

And so, if we think about green bean casserole, [there are] two really simple little swaps that can make a big difference. One is instead of using regular canned green beans, you can get the no-salt-added variety. (And if your store doesn’t have the unsalted, that no-salt-added, one really great tip, that you can use really with any canned vegetable, is to drain it real well, rinse it with a little bit of water, and then drain it again. And that will remove about 40% of the sodium.)

So the swap is that you would swap in the no-salt-added green beans instead of the regular. And another swap that you can make—which, I love this one—is using the reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup in place of the regular variety. And really, that tip, you can use in a lot of casseroles. You know, I have a hash brown casserole recipe that calls for cream soup, and so I’ll typically, if I’m going to make that, use the low-fat or fat-free cream soup. And you’re still going to get that creaminess, that good flavor, but it cuts out a significant amount of fat and calories. So I would encourage listeners just to think about— you know, what are some of my favorite recipes? Could I, in my macaroni & cheese, maybe make half of the cheese a lower-fat version? Or could I use skim milk in it instead of whole milk? And typically, in casseroles, things like that, you’re not really going to miss the fat too much. So that’s a favorite tip of mine, is just to think about what simple swaps can you make.

[NARRATOR]: Aside from food choices, the other huge part of preventing or managing type 2 diabetes is physical activity. And, even if your best laid plans for holiday eating might fall through, Tami says that getting moving is one thing you can do straight away.

[TAMI]: Again, as I mentioned earlier, I am an advocate that you should enjoy the food in your life, and it’s figuring out how to fit that in. But there will be times where life happens, and maybe you end up eating a little bit more than you planned to, or a little bit more sweet treats than you planned to. And one thing that can really help with that is that physical activity piece, fitting fitness in. Particularly for individuals that are trying to manage blood sugars. So let’s say you ate a little bit more than you planned at the meal, a little bit more carbohydrate, which is what raises blood sugars— by going ahead and taking a little walk, or getting some physical activity an hour or two after you eat, it can actually help prevent some of that blood sugar spike and it can help burn off some of the calories too.

[NARRATOR]: And this physical activity doesn’t have to be intense— it doesn’t even have to be walking. And you can do it in short spurts throughout the day.

[TAMI]: The cool thing is that 10 minute blocks of physical activity, like walking—doing just 10 minutes maybe early in the day, 10 minutes later in the day—it adds up. And that makes a difference. So thinking about, where can I fit movement in? You know, maybe it’s walking. Maybe right now it’s raking leaves. All of those types of activities that are going to get your heart rate up can be really beneficial in helping to burn calories and lower blood sugar.

Or maybe if you’re someone who has hip, or knee, or joint problems and isn’t able to do a lot of those types of activities, even getting up every 30 minutes or so and walking around your house or your office, for 2 or 3 minutes— that actually has been shown to help lower blood sugar, and be good for your heart health. So, just getting up and moving every half hour.

[NARRATOR]: More than anything, though, Tami says that while it’s worth keeping these strategies in mind, ultimately, when it comes to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, it’s the long run the counts, more than just a few meals.

[TAMI]: You know, when we consider the average holiday meal is somewhere around 3,000 calories, if we’re thinking about ways where we can maybe lower the calories a little bit, lower the fat, fill up on veggies first, maybe eat off a smaller plate— all of those little things together can help make a big difference. But, as I always tell my own patients, it’s what you’re doing most of the time that’s most important. And these little small changes that you make, small swaps, small ways you fit in fitness, it adds up. And can make a difference.

So, yeah, we don’t want people to beat themselves up! We know that the holidays can be challenging at times. But just to be more mindful in what they’re doing health-wise [and] physical activity-wise during the holidays.