Diabetics Say Food-Laden Holidays Require Added Vigilance

Poll: Thanksgiving can be tough for diabetics but Hanukkah's not so bad.
Poll: Thanksgiving can be tough for diabetics but Hanukkah's not so bad.

According to a new poll of 226 patients who shared their health information on the crowd-sourcing health site, PatientsLikeMe, at least half of diabetics say having the illness affects their holidays. In particular, the poll found that nearly 60% of diabetics say the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through Christmas "is most difficult for controlling blood glucose."

Sarah Taylor, a 26-year-old nursing student with Type 1 diabetes says she ends up "counting a lot of carbohydrates on the run" at Thanksgiving. She has an insulin pump, which helps, but she still has to monitor her blood glucose at every meal and snack and adjust the insulin levels accordingly. "Any sort of meal where there's a lot of carbs — mashed potatos, plus the bread, plus dessert, even the cranberry sauce — you have to think about how much sugar everything has when you don't do the cooking," says Taylor, who lives in Boston.

Consequently, she says, she has to test her blood sugar around eight times a day during the holidays, compared to about five times normally. "I have to be ready to change my plan at a moment's notice," she says,

"but I'm pretty used to it by now."

Indeed, when patients in the poll were asked about strategies to control spikes in blood sugar, more than three-quarters of those with Type 1 diabetes — which is generally diagnosed at a young age, and requires daily blood glucose monitoring and insulin — said they changed their medication dosage.

About one-third of patients with Type 2 diabetes — a condition typically diagnosed at an older age that develops over time due to environmental factors like diet — said they tried alternative approaches like exercising more, or simply avoiding extra rich, sugary foods. About 15% of all the patients said they don't do anything different and just hope for the best.

Interestingly, while 90% of patients said they feel free to talk about their illness with friends and family, more than one-third said others still don't fully understand how diabetes can affect them during the holidays.

Mostly, the patients just try to muddle through as best they can:

With holiday meals and parties so prevalent over the next six weeks, many of the respondents (84%) say they manage with what’s available, while 16% make some adjustment to accommodate for their diabetes (7% host to be in control, 7% eat before going out and 2% bring their own meal).

Christmas seems to be the toughest holiday for controlling blood glucose levels, according to 44% of patients in the survey. That's followed by Thanksgiving (15%), Halloween (6%), New Year's (3%) and Easter (2%). None of the patients said they had trouble during Ramadan, Passover or Hanukkah. One-quarter of those surveyed said the holidays weren't particularly difficult.

This program aired on November 22, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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