If you’re watching your blood sugar this holiday season, seasonal holiday goodies may be a stressor this year. While there’s not one specific food that can make or break your blood sugar, it’s important to understand how to navigate these events for balanced blood sugar to feel your best. We spoke to dietitians and diabetes experts to find out exactly what foods you might want to limit this year.
It’s not just what you choose to eat or not eat for good blood sugar; it’s also how you pair foods together to create a balanced meal or snack for your blood sugar.
“For better blood sugar control during the holiday season, avoid eating starchy foods on their own,” explains Alissa Palladino MS, RDN, LD, CPT. “Instead, I recommend pairing them with a protein source. This slows down digestion, prevents blood sugar spikes, and helps you feel fuller longer.”
“To make this practical for the holidays, if you want to eat a cookie, pair it with a food that contains protein, such as a piece of cheese or even a glass of milk,” adds Palladino. “If you’re going to eat pancakes on Christmas morning, pair them with Greek yogurt or scrambled eggs for protein.”
It’s important to remember that no one food or meal can greatly affect your total blood sugar control. It’s up to you to decide what foods feel worth it or not at your holiday party, but we aim to equip you with the knowledge to make that decision yourself. Let’s find out exactly what foods dietitians recommend limiting at your next holiday party.
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This traditional sauce, although delicious, is packed with added sugar. With 22 grams per serving, this side dish quickly reaches the added sugar dietary guidelines. The guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to 25 grams or less per day for your health. That means one serving of cranberry sauce is nearly 90% of the daily limit for added sugars.
To prevent blood sugar spikes, consider keeping your serving to just a dollop, and pair it with holiday protein options like turkey or ham for best blood sugar responses after the meal. If you are looking for a healthier alternative, consider making your own cranberry sauce instead to control the added sugar content.
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If you’re looking for a snack to keep you full at a holiday event, crackers are not it. Crackers typically are not only going to spike your blood sugar, but you may also feel hungry again soon. Crackers tend to be a source of quick digesting carbohydrates that can spike your blood sugar after eating them.
If you want to feel full and energized without the blood sugar roller coaster, one dietitian has a solution for you.
“Replace crackers or chips with nuts or seeds,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD. “These add some protein, fiber, and healthy fat to your daily intake instead of refined carbs. Go for lightly salted and keep serving sizes to a few handfuls per day.”
Candy is tempting to pop in your mouth when it’s sitting out on the counter in front of you, but it won’t be doing your blood sugar any favors. However, this sweet treat is primarily comprised of added sugar, and will spike blood sugar very quickly, especially when eaten on an empty stomach. Additionally, there’s not much nutrition besides simple carbohydrates—which means that you might find yourself with high blood sugar and still hungry, and that never feels very good.
“Watch the candies. These can be tricky because they’re seemingly small and innocent. They’re everywhere during holidays—chocolate morsels from the Advent calendar or Almond Roca just because it’s available can have a big impact on blood sugars,” advises Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD.
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These little morsels might be a family tradition, but they can wreak havoc on your blood sugar. Made with powdered sugar, butter, and a splash of bourbon, these are as close to a sugar bomb as you can get. Of course, the added sugar is bound to spike your blood sugar, but the butter in this holiday treat takes a long time to digest, and thus, keeps blood sugar elevated for longer. Foods that are a mixture of sugar and fat, like bourbon balls, tend to elevate blood sugar for a longer duration after eating.
If you love these treats (and they are worth the splurge), save them for after a meal to hopefully slow down the absorption of the sugar all at once.
Sweet potato casserole
Sweet potatoes are already naturally sweet—but then we put them into a casserole and doctor them up with brown sugar, molasses, and marshmallows on top. This dish can quickly add up in the total carbohydrate consumption for your meal, and you may want to evaluate if it’s worth it for you or not.
“Sweet potato casserole can be one of the biggest sugar bombs during the holidays,” Sharon Puello, MA, RD, CDN, CDCES, tells Eat This, Not That! “The natural sweetness in sweet potatoes, plus the added brown sugar and marshmallows can really destabilize even well-controlled blood sugars. If this is a holiday favorite, consider having a small portion after your meal by enjoying it as your dessert.”
“The warmth of cinnamon and nutmeg, and the gentle sweetness of maple syrup don’t have to stop at desserts and rich dishes like sweet potato casserole; they can be the extra sparkle in your roasted veggie dishes,” continues Puello. “Carrots, onions, celery, and fennel taste delicious when roasted with ground nutmeg and drizzled with a combination of maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. You’d be surprised; a slightly sweet veggie side dish may actually help to satisfy your sweet tooth without the carb overload.”
We know that choosing a high-carb, low-protein breakfast has a negative effect on blood sugar control for the rest of the day. One recent study showed that a high-protein breakfast can help regulate appetite and cravings later in the day. If you ever needed a reason not to skip breakfast, this is it! However, stay away from the high blood sugar options like pastries, and turn toward whole grains to balance blood sugar.
“I suggest avoiding [or] limiting pastries for breakfast,” explains Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD, LDN. “It’s important to have balanced meals—with whole grains that provide fiber, as well as healthy fat and protein to keep blood sugar stable and promote satiety.”
“Better options include oatmeal with berries and nuts, whole grain pancakes (with very little maple syrup), or whole grain muffins,” Badaracco continues. “Adding plain yogurt, nut butter, or a hard-boiled egg on the side can also help to prevent increases in blood sugar.”
Whether we’re talking about pie or your family’s traditional dessert, we know that these treats are loaded with sugar and calories. While we don’t always recommend foregoing dessert, one dietitian shares some tips and tricks to have your cake and eat it too.
Rather, Jennifer Fiske, MS, RDN, LD, recommends, “Eat your pie with dinner, don’t eat it alone.”
“I recommend including desserts with a meal for better blood glucose control,” Fiske says. “Pies and baked treats can have a lot of added sugar. Including dessert with your meal also helps prevent overeating because there isn’t an ‘add on’ after someone’s satisfied from eating. People can enjoy a variety of foods, sweets included, and support balanced blood sugar.”
Remember that you can’t undo any progress you’ve made with your blood sugar in one meal or even one day. If you notice your blood sugar spiking, try to learn from this experience to make a more supportive choice for your health next time. According to dietitians, limiting foods with added sugar and balancing your carbohydrate foods with protein and fiber will go a long way in supporting your blood sugars this holiday season.