Making Turkey Day Healthier for Diabetics–and Non-Diabetics, Too

7 Tricks Make Thanksgiving Easier on the Blood Sugar

You know that sinking feeling—more like a crash, really.  The rolls, stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy and pies have all been devoured and now they’ve joined forces to create white carb havoc.

While most of us joke about the stupor we fall into after a big turkey dinner, Thanksgiving aftershock is not a joking matter for diabetics.  Hence the call I got from Pam Mellskog, reporter for Longmont’s Times-Call.  November is Diabetes Month and Pam was looking for ideas that could make Thanksgiving easier for diabetics.  Here are some of the things we talked about.

First, a clarification:  There isn’t such a thing as a specific “diabetic diet.”  Diabetics benefit from the same whole and natural eating approach that everyone benefits from:  real fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, good fats, beans, nuts—in other words, foods that come straight from the earth or as close thereto as possible.  What’s not so great for diabetics are the same manufactured foods that aren’t great for any of us:  white sugar, candy, sodas, white flour breads, muffins, cakes, pizzas and cookies, and other highly processed packaged foods.*

Ideally, we’d would pitch most of the traditional Thanksgiving meal out the window if there were any diabetics at the table.  As this would like spark serious civil unrest, however, I shared some intermediate steps with Pam:

Trick 1:  Weave in Whole Grains This is one of the easiest ways to “healthify” the Thanksgiving meal.  You might remember the whole grain article in September’s newsletter, “What Makes Whole Grains So Hard to Eat?”  As one reader commented, whole grains aren’t so hard to eat if you just follow a 50-50 rule:

For my baked goods, I just make them out of half white, half whole wheat flours. The difference between 50-50 and all-white is much smaller than the jump to 100% whole grain. Whole grain flours do not hold moisture as well as processed ones, so using half white maintains a familiar texture, while actually increasing flavor.

So Trick 1 this Thanksgiving is to make 50-50 baked goods.

  • For the rolls and pie crusts, get some whole wheat pastry flour in the bulk aisle of a health foods store.  (Great Harvest also makes some delicious whole wheat rolls.)
  • For the stuffing, use half whole wheat or other whole grain bread.
  • If you want, make the gravy with not just half but all whole wheat flour—the difference is negligible.

Trick 2:  Cut Back on Sugar With sugar so cheap, it’s no wonder it gets overused in recipes.  I discovered long ago that I could safely reduce the sugar in most recipes by a quarter without anyone so much as batting an eye.  Start with this much in your Thanksgiving pies, but feel free to continue gradually cutting back to half the sugar called for.

Trick 3:   Use Alternative Sweeteners Many dietitians will tell you that to the body, sugar is no different than honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and so on.  This isn’t the place for a debate of the science behind this statement, but it does bear noting that the major sponsors of the American Dietetic Association include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars, the American Beverage Association, Post Cereals and Safeway.  Their sponsorship is not insignificant, either.  It costs $18,000 just for a booth at the ADA’s annual conference.

On the other hand, it costs nothing and doesn’t hurt anything  to experiment going without sugar, which is how I found out that substituting honey and agave nectar eliminated my sleeping problems.  Don’t worry about how to use these new sweeteners; recipes are plentiful.

Trick 4:  Use Fruits  and Flavors Instead of Sugar This trick is especially good for cranberry sauce which contains a lot of the white stuff, very often the High Fructose Corn Syrup variety.  My Cranberry Fig Relish, for instance, uses orange juice, pears, dates and figs, with just a small amount of maple syrup.  Also, strong spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and orange zest help create flavor that isn’t reliant on sugar.

Trick 5:  Add More Green There’s a reason Thanksgiving frequently precipitates carb arrest:  Practically the whole meal is comprised of starchy carbs!  So what about making two or three (light) vegetable dishes, like a clean, fresh green salad, a simple kale dish and maybe some Brussels sprouts.  Fill half of your plate with those and at least it will take a second trip to the food bar to get any more servings of carbs.

Trick 6:  Moderation Of course eating smaller portions would help stave off a carb attack, but that’s almost antithetical to Thanksgiving tradition.  I mention it anyway, with the thought that it might pop up in time to save you from a second helping of pumpkin pie.

Trick 7:  Thin the Taters This is the trick Pam is featuring in her article.  Potatoes are high on the Glycemic Index, which is particularly bad for diabetics according to some experts.  However, Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes and gravy would be no Thanksgiving at all for most of us.  So Pam and I talked about how celeriac (or celery root) could be used for part of the potatoes, “thinning” their glycemic rating.  For the recipe, be sure to check out her article and get the recipe on Wednesday, November 11 in the Times-Call Food Section.

* See “Diabetes Diet, Variety and Consistency Are Key,” Dr. Tedd Mitchell, M.D., USA Weekend Magazine, November 12, 2006; and Sandra Woodruff, MS, RD, LD/N, author of The Complete Diabetes Prevention Plan (Avery, 2005), as quoted in Energy Times, July/August, 2006.

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