The holidays are a great time to celebrate over food and drink, but if you’re conscious about your blood sugar levels, you’re about to find yourself face-to-face with a lot of carb-heavy, glucose-disrupting options.
While keeping your levels stable is important, you don’t have to let it get in the way of enjoying quality meals with family and friends. Instead of saying no to all of your favorite holiday treats, try these back-pocket strategies to minimize spikes over the next couple of weeks.
1. Get creative with your ingredients
Holiday dishes and desserts are typically rich in processed carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour as well as starchy foods like potatoes.
While these ingredients won’t do long-term damage to your metabolic health in moderation, they’re still high on the glycemic index (GI) and can trigger abnormal glucose spikes, which can increase oxidative stress levels, put you at higher cardiometabolic risk, and make you feel sluggish, fatigued, and irritable even in the short-term — not to mention throw the hormones that regulate your hunger (leptin and ghrelin) out of whack .
The good news is that you can almost always find glucose-friendly substitutes for high-GI ingredients — and while they may not always turn out exactly like your family’s traditional recipe, they’ll still taste delicious with minimal impact on your blood sugar levels.
Here are some easy substitutes that feature ingredients you can find at most grocery stores:
- Add fiber-rich oats to cookies or in dessert toppings.
- Replace refined sugar with natural sugar alternatives such as stevia and allulose. (These aren’t always 1:1 substitutes, so it’s best to double-check a few recipes beforehand.) Honey and maple syrup are great alternatives as well, but they may have the same impact on your glucose levels as refined sugar.
- Prepare a platter of hummus with carrots/celery sticks, pate, or dry-roasted nuts instead of potato chips.
- Mix steamed cauliflower or zucchini with your mashed potatoes.
- Add blended leafy greens to soups, stews, and sauces.
Remember, a substitution doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing swap. Even cutting down on the sugar in a recipe and replacing the rest with applesauce or stevia can make a positive difference in your insulin response and glucose levels.
2. End every meal with a walk
As tempting as it is to stay indoors all week, getting out of the house for a quick walk after a meal can have a significant effect on your glucose response.
In a recent systemic review, scientists found that breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with standing in overweight and obese individuals significantly reduced postprandial (post-meal) glucose levels, but had no impact on insulin .
On the other hand, light-intensity walking sessions of as little as 2-5 minutes reduced both glucose and insulin levels after a meal. Another study from 2021 found that 30 minutes of uninterrupted aerobic exercise (walking, running, or cycling) within 6 hours of eating a meal also reduced postprandial glucose and insulin levels .
Walking after a meal may also help you digest food more quickly (and, as a result, feel full faster). In one study, researchers compared the effects of a variety of digestifs (post-meal alcoholic beverages) with a post-meal walk among healthy men and found that only walking accelerated gastric emptying, or the time it took for food to pass from the stomach to the small intestine .
3. Eat more resistant starches
Starchy foods such as white rice and potatoes tend to trigger large glucose spikes, but there are ways you can enjoy these ingredients and blunt their blood sugar impact at the same time.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, researchers have found that eating resistant starches, or starches that don’t get digested in your small intestine and function similarly to fiber, may actually improve your insulin sensitivity rather than impair it .
Resistant starches occur naturally in some foods, including oats and green bananas, but you can actually increase the resistant starch content (and subsequently reduce the glycemic impact) of white rice and potatoes by cooking them and letting them cool before reheating and eating.
In a randomized, single-blind crossover study, scientists discovered that letting white rice cool for 24 hours more than doubled its resistant starch content and reduced its impact on participants’ glycemic response compared to freshly cooked white rice .
4. Choose glucose-friendly alcoholic drinks
Alcohol consumption surges between Thanksgiving and the holidays, and many festive drinks aren’t glucose-friendly . A single serving of eggnog may contain up to 20 grams of sugar, more than 80% of your recommended daily added sugar intake according to the American Heart Association .
While it’s perfectly fine to enjoy eggnog, spiked hot chocolate, or a glass of New Year champagne, having multiple of these drinks in a row can trigger a massive glucose spike and crash. Instead, balance out your sugary beverage intake with one of the following options:
- A dry wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay.
- Alcoholic kombucha (some are fermented for so long that they have no remaining sugar content).
- Low-carb cocktails like vodka sodas. (Avoid diet sodas, which may have artificial sweeteners that can impact your metabolic health.)
- Distilled spirits (whiskey, vodka, rum) lightly sweetened with honey or stevia and club soda.
If you use a CGM to monitor your blood glucose, you may notice that your levels dip slightly after drinking alcohol. That’s because of the way in which alcohol impacts your liver (it inhibits glucose production), but the matter is a little more complex — alcohol may also increase the breakdown of stored glycogen into glucose, leading to a balancing effect.
In the end, different people will have different blood glucose responses to alcohol. Where the science is pretty clear across the board is that drinking can negatively impact your sleep, which can lead to a higher glycemic response the following morning — so be sure to drink responsibly, stay hydrated, and know when to cut yourself off .
5. Stick to your usual routine
Your body operates according to a circadian rhythm, or biological clock, that’s sensitive to changes in light exposure, diet, exercise, and sleep. Disrupting this clock, as it turns out, has consequences for your metabolic health — in a study performed on both healthy, nondiabetic subjects and diabetic subjects, scientists found that a misaligned circadian rhythm led to impaired glucose metabolism .
Though some level of disruption to your standard day-to-day routine is inevitable during the holidays, sticking to your usual meal times and sleep schedule as much as possible can help you keep your glucose levels stable. This means that even if you temporarily sway from your usual time-restricted eating habits or workout regimen, you’ll still want to:
- Avoid eating late at night or right before bed, which research shows can throw off your body clock and negatively affect your glucose tolerance .
- Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time, especially if you’re traveling for the holidays and switching time zones.
- Get natural light exposure in the morning .
Ultimately, your lifestyle during the holidays will never be as good as it is when you’re at home. As you head into the festivities in the days to come, the key is to find balance: indulge in holiday foods and drinks and don’t obsess too much over sugar content, but try one or more of these tips to keep you on course as much as possible:
- Swap out high GI ingredients with fiber-rich, low-GI alternatives in classic dishes, even if it means halving the amount of refined sugar and replacing the rest with allulose or applesauce.
- Reduce postprandial glucose and insulin levels by taking a walk (even 2 minutes long, but ideally 30) within 6 hours after a meal, though the closer to the meal the better. If it’s too cold outside, walk laps around the house.
- You don’t have to skip out on potatoes and rice — cook and cool your starches to increase their resistant starch content, which minimizes your glucose response.
- Enjoy your once-a-year eggnog, then switch over to low-sugar alcoholic beverages such as dry wines, hard kombuchas, and low-carb cocktails. (And don’t let the blood glucose drop fool you.)
- Stick to your usual eating and sleeping routine as much as possible.