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For Diabetics, Eating On Thanksgiving Requires A Strategy

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erick Requadt

For many, the holiday season is a time of weight gain and indulgence, but without long-term health consequences. But for people with chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, that indulgence can be have more serious health effects.

That’s why, about a week ago, Charles and Debbie Riggs found themselves at a diabetes education class debating the merits of indulging in their upcoming Thanksgiving meal.

Debbie Riggs says one meal won’t have an impact. But her husband disagrees.

“What’s going to keep it one day? You say it’s the last time and then you don’t make it the last time,” Charles Riggs said.

Credit Lisa Gillespie / WFPL
Charles and Debbie Riggs

Charles Riggs is 69-years-old, and was just diagnosed with diabetes six weeks ago. He said before the diagnosis, he already tried to eat fairly healthy — like making sure to pack his breakfast omelets full of vegetables. But at this class, he’s learning a lot about how to manage his disease.

Ronda Merryman-Valiyi, a certified diabetes educator leading the class at Baptist Health, said the majority of Americans with diabetes don’t get diabetes education.

“Only about 35 percent of people who have been diagnosed with diabetes have actually received diabetes education,” Merryman-Valiyi said. “So that means 65 percent of people are out there just relying on hearsay from family members or friends. They really don’t have a solid education that they need to manage their diabetes for a lifetime.”

That education is important. Merryman-Valiyi gives her students food labels to read, with a special focus on sugar and carbohydrates. Sugar-free cookies, she said, aren’t always the better alternative to a regular cookie.

“Most people with diabetes are so focused on sugar, and they kind of know it enough to be dangerous with that,” she said. “So you see them choosing sugar-free products and eating lots of those sugar-free products. Well, it’s not just the sugar. They have carbohydrates in them.”

All carbohydrates turn into sugar during digestion, and then go into the bloodstream. So while a person might think they’re eating a healthier cookie, that cookie is just as detrimental to health as a regular cookie. Merryman-Valiyi suggests moderation.

That’s what 49-year-old Carey Calvin is planning to do. Calvin is prediabetic, which means her blood sugar is higher than normal. If you catch prediabetes early enough, diabetes can be prevented — which is part of the reason why Calvin is planning her Thanksgiving meal carefully.

“My strategy is going to be to eat what’s there, but limit what I eat prior to the big meal and afterwards, and then to just eat in moderation,” Calvin said. “And I’m going to work out the Wednesday before and that Friday and Saturday.”

Krista Fanelli, who works at the YMCA of Greater Louisville as a community integrated specialist, said another tip is to ditch the fats usually used for baking — like butter — with healthier alternatives.

“Here’s some healthy substitutions: swapping out Greek yogurt for mayonnaise, and if you’re going to make a baked good, you can swap out applesauce or mashed banana for some of the fats,” Fanelli said.

Fanelli also said having support around the holidays to eat healthier is key, and that’s something they teach at the YMCA’s prediabetes education classes.

“We definitely advise our participants to create a support system through their friends and family, people who will be sensitive and understanding to what they’re going,” Fanelli said.

Diabetes educator Merryman-Valiyi says a general rule of thumb is to fill half your plate full of vegetables, and not the starchy kind — like potatoes. A quarter should be filled with a leaner meat, like turkey. And another quarter can be starches, like mashed potatoes or stuffing.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter. Most recently, she was a reporter for Kaiser Health News. During her career, Gillespie has covered all things health — from Medicaid and Medicare payment policy and rural hospital closures to science funding and the dietary supplement market.
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