For anyone, the tempting treats that are part and parcel of the holiday season are a thing to be avoided in excess — from sugary, decorated cookies to free-flowing New Year's champagne.
But for those with diabetes, avoiding these indulgences takes on special importance.
Face it: Many of the finger foods and holiday treats served at your typical get-together are loaded with sugar and fat. In addition to their overall caloric intake, those with diabetes must keep a close eye on what they eat — and how much of it they eat — to avoid potentially dangerous fluctuations in their blood sugar levels.
Dr. Francine Kaufman, head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and past-president of the American Diabetes Association, says that one way to avoid the potential problems posed by holiday parties is simply not to go. But, she adds, there are ways that diabetics can join in the fun of a holiday party without putting themselves at undue risk of a hyperglycemic or hypoglycemic episode.
"Short of staying at home, they have to exercise willpower," she said. "If you are going to indulge — and admittedly it's hard not to — as far as eating is concerned you need to be ready to cover the food you eat with the appropriate amount of insulin."
Fortunately, the medications that diabetics have at their disposal today allow them a fair degree of latitude when it comes to enjoying their holiday favorites.
"The way medications are set up now, a lot of people with diabetes can eat the same way I eat, but they just have to take their medications into account," said Patricia Heanue, a registered dietitian and a specialist in diabetes nutrition at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
In fact, she says, most of the foods that pose nutritional hazards to those with diabetes are ones that the rest of us would also do well to avoid.
"There's no diabetes diet," she said. "Everyone should eat healthier, whether they have diabetes or not."
Joan Salge Blake, clinical assistant professor and nutrition specialist at Boston University, agrees.
"When you have diabetes, you're really managing a healthy diet," she said. "It's an eating style that all Americans should be following anyway."
When it comes to colorfully decorated holiday cookies, it's tough to say no. Keith Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says these cookies pack about 85 calories per 2-inch treat.
"But the problem is that with sugar cookies, you never just eat one," Ayoob said. "And if it's frosted, that's another 50 calories."
Plus, all that sugar can be a special problem for those hoping to keep their blood sugar levels in check. According to the National Institutes of Health, a cookie that is three inches in diameter constitutes a single serving of sugary food. That means that such a treat contains the same amount of carbohydrate as a slice of bread, a half cup of corn or potatoes or one-third cup rice or pasta.
"On occasion, things can be swapped out," Salge Blake said. "For example, if you wanted to have a sugar cookie, you would swap out another source of carbohydrates."
But, she adds, a sugar cookie will not likely have as much positive nutritional value as other carbohydrate-containing foods. "So you can't do this all the time," she said.