Holiday cooking is stressful enough — add in the challenge of cooking for guests with various eating preferences and dietary needs, and the idea of crafting the perfect holiday meal can seem impossible. This may feel especially true if one of your guests has been diagnosed with a health condition such as type 2 diabetes, which requires diligent meal planning. The good news: It doesn't have to be.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which the body can’t effectively use the hormone insulin to transport blood sugar (glucose) to cells and muscles for energy. This phenomenon, known as insulin resistance, causes glucose to pile up in the blood at unhealthy levels, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
Of the more than 34 million Americans with diabetes (about 1 in 10), about 90 to 95 percent have type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That means there’s a good chance at least one person at your holiday table has to pay close attention to the food they eat.
Making healthy food choices is one of the best ways that people with type 2 diabetes can keep their blood sugar levels under control, helping them avoid diabetes-related complications like nerve, kidney, and heart damage, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As the host, you can help any friends and family members with type 2 diabetes stay on track with their diabetes diet and still satisfy other guests with the holiday dishes they love.
How? By using this guide to cooking for someone with type 2 diabetes during the holidays. Read on for expert tips, key ingredients to use (and avoid), diabetes meal planning resources, and recipes to get you started.
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Contrary to popular belief, there is no single diabetes diet. People may follow any number of eating patterns to manage diabetes, including a Mediterranean diet, a low-carbohydrate diet, and a plant-based eating approach such as a vegetarian diet, according to a nutrition consensus report from the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
The key is to include plenty of nonstarchy vegetables (such as broccoli, cucumbers, leafy greens such as kale, mushrooms, beets, Brussels sprouts, and carrots), minimize added sugars and refined grains, and opt for minimally processed foods whenever possible, the ADA reports. Lean protein (like chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, tofu, and beans), nonfat or lowfat dairy, and healthy fat sources (including fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, and olive oil) are also staples of a diabetes-friendly diet, per recommendations from the NIDDK.
In fact, a healthy diabetes diet is the ideal diet for everyone, “but because someone may have diabetes, the focus becomes that much more important as it helps them to manage their blood sugar levels,” says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, CDCES, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Miami.
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Stock up on these diabetes-friendly ingredients when planning your holiday meals.
“My top piece of advice is to balance your table by adding more veggie dishes,” says Toby Smithson, RD, CDCES, the Hilton Head, South Carolina–based author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies.
Dishes that feature nonstarchy vegetables in particular (asparagus, beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, peppers, salad greens) are your best bet. People with type 2 diabetes can typically eat as many nonstarchy vegetables as they wish, because these veggies are low in both calories and carbohydrates, notes the ADA. Just be sure if you’re using frozen or canned varieties to opt for ones with no added salt.
The quality and quantity of carbs consumed has a direct effect on blood sugar levels, Kimberlain says. Therefore, it’s vital to stock your holiday table with the healthiest carb options possible.
Healthy carb options to choose include starchy fruits and vegetables like apples, blueberries, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin, and black beans, according to the ADA. Foods made from whole grains (like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-grain pasta) are also solid bets.
These foods are generally rich in fiber, which helps boost satiety, improve digestion, and manage blood sugar, notes the ADA.
Carbs and sugar aren’t the only thing people with type 2 diabetes need to keep an eye on — choosing lean protein sources is also important. Lean protein foods like fish, skinless chicken and turkey, eggs, beans and lentils, as well as soy (such as tempeh and tofu) are typically low in saturated fat. And tamping down on saturated fat is vital for lowering the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
This matters for people with diabetes because they are twice as likely to develop heart disease or stroke as someone without diabetes, as the CDC notes.
When eaten in moderation, healthier fat sources like avocado, olive oil, and nuts and seeds can help guests with type 2 diabetes lower their risk of heart disease. These foods offer monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol, an important marker for heart health, according to the ADA.
RELATED: 8 Ways to Manage Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Health
Steer clear of these ingredients when making a diabetes-friendly meal. Many can even be substituted with healthier options that don’t skimp on flavor.
Recipes that use simple carbohydrate ingredients (read: added sugar) like honey, sweet glazes, or icing can spike blood sugar levels in small portions, Smithson says.
Granted, some recipes may need some sugar to taste palatable. Cranberry sauce, for example, needs sugar to offset the tartness of the fruit. And yet you can probably cut at least half the amount of sugar the recipe calls for, Smithson says. You can make up for the loss of sweetness by adding in ingredients like vanilla, cinnamon, and orange.
Or consider using alternative sweeteners that are diabetes-friendly. Erythritol, for example, is a sugar alcohol that may not impact blood sugar levels, notes the Diabetes Food Hub, which the ADA runs. Just be sure to not overdo it on these sweeteners, as they may cause gas, bloating, and stomachache.
As previously mentioned, meats high in saturated fat can spell trouble for heart health — especially for people with type 2 diabetes.
But the sodium content in many processed meats is also cause for concern. Even if you choose a lean protein like chicken or turkey, it may still pack loads of hidden salt. Regularly consuming high amounts of sodium can lead to high blood pressure or hypertension, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the AHA.
For that reason, the AHA recommends checking for sodium on meat labels: Your best bet will be meats with 100 milligrams (mg) of sodium or less in 4 ounces.
The wrong dip or dressing can wreck an otherwise healthy vegetable platter by adding extra calories and saturated fat. Thanks to additives like cream and whole milk, 2 tablespoons of veggie dip can pack 120 calories and 11 grams (g) of fat (2.5 g from saturated fat), per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
For this reason, Smithson prefers using Greek yogurt to create homemade veggie dips and dressings — 2 tablespoons of nonfat plain provides less than 20 calories and less than 1 g of fat, per the USDA. You can also look for Greek yogurt in store-bought dips and dressings. Oftentimes, guests don’t even notice the switch.
RELATED: 20 Easy and Quick Snack Ideas for People With Type 2 Diabetes
If you’re still at a loss as to how to create a tasty, diabetes-friendly dish for your table, try one (or more) of the following recipes that are perfect on a holiday menu. These crowd-pleasers get the thumbs-up from diabetes experts.
This recipe from Downshiftology offers a delicious way to add more veggies to your holiday plate, Smithson notes. What’s more, Brussels sprouts are a nonstarchy vegetable, which is one food group the ADA encourages people with diabetes to eat aplenty. Nonstarchy veggies are chock-full of vitamins and minerals yet low in calories. Plus, the recipe couldn’t be more straightforward: Simply toss sliced Brussels sprouts in olive or avocado oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast in the oven. You’ll end up with a crunchy, healthy side dish.
Nutrition per serving (serves 6): 90 calories, 5 g total fat (1 g saturated fat), 4 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 28 mg sodium.
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While this recipe from Well Plated includes two carb-heavy ingredients (butternut squash and maple syrup), it balances the scale with low- and no-carb ingredients (olive oil, almond milk, Parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, and spices). The result: a diabetes-friendly dish that contains 17 g of carbs per serving, Smithson says.
Nutrition per serving (serves 6): 109 calories, 5 g total fat (1 g saturated fat), 1 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 407 mg sodium.
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What are the holidays without pie? With this recipe by Amy’s Healthy Baking, your guests can enjoy the traditional flavor of pumpkin pie, without the hefty dose of calories, sugar, and fat typically found in the treat. Plus, it’s a good source of fiber with over 3 g per serving. “Including higher-fiber foods with your meals will help blunt spikes in blood sugar,” Smithson says.
Nutrition per serving (serves 10): 135 calories, 4.6 g total fat (2.6 g saturated fat), 4.3 g protein, 19.6 g carbohydrates, 3.4 g fiber, 7.6 g sugar, 189.7 mg sodium.
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This healthier version of a holiday classic from Wholesome Yum offers plenty of flavor without loads of added sugar. It contains only four ingredients: cranberries, water, erythritol, and orange zest. “This recipe can fit into the holiday meal for a person with diabetes as long as the full 6 g of carbohydrate is calculated into the whole meal,” Smithson says.
Nutrition per serving (serves 6): 32 calories, 0 g total fat (0 g saturated fat), 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar.
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Kimberlain offers up this recipe as a way of enjoying a flavorful potato dish — minus the standard heaping serving of butter. “I used a little butter in the recipe, but in all honesty, many recipes use double to triple the amount,” she notes. “Any time you’re able to cut back on the amount added in is of benefit.”
Nutrition per serving (serves 8): 164 calories, 5.5 g total fat (2.4 g saturated fat), 5.5 g protein, 24.2 g carbohydrates, 3.6 g fiber, 3.2 g sugar, 110.1 mg sodium.
Get the recipe.
RELATED: 10 Surprising Foods That Have Little Impact on Blood Sugar
Check out these books, blogs, and websites if you could use more diabetes nutrition tips and tricks.
The ADA is one of the leading diabetes education organizations in the nation. It is a top choice for finding healthy diabetes recipes, nutrition information, and meal prep advice.
Smithson’s book offers tons of diabetes-friendly recipes and information on customizing meals. She breaks down what fits into a healthy diabetes eating plan, gives shopping tips, and suggests how to eat healthy away from home.
You’ll find a wealth of information about diabetes nutrition on the CDC’s website. This government agency offers tips related to meal planning, grocery shopping, reading food labels, counting carbs, and more.
Kimberlain’s blog is a valuable resource for people with type 2 diabetes. She publishes crowd-friendly diabetes recipes, along with nutrition-focused articles to help people navigate life with type 2 diabetes.
Run by the ADA, Diabetes Food Hub provides a wide variety of recipes (organized in categories such as lower carb, snacks, Mediterranean, and budget-friendly), grocery lists, meal plans, and informational articles.
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Preparing a holiday meal that’s both crowd-friendly and suitable for people with type 2 diabetes doesn’t have to be complicated. Make healthy foods like nonstarchy vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein the stars of every dish.
And if you swap unhealthy ingredients with smart, tasty choices, you may just offer your other guests without diabetes some health perks. Making switches can go unnoticed, Smithson says, adding that “this can help lower the added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat — three areas everyone can benefit from.”
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