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Getting a strategy to cope with holiday (diabetic) stress

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Christmas desserts are red alarm foods for diabetics who aren’t controlling their blood sugar.

Ben Smith

Ding dong merrily on high. Welcome to my nightmare.

For a Type 2 diabetic and compulsive overeater like me, visions of sugarplums, figgy pudding, gingerbread, wassail, eggnog, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding fill me more with dread than desire.

I am one of 29 million diabetics in the U.S. – 9.3 percent of the population — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Another 86 million are pre-diabetic. If you aren’t diabetic, you no doubt know someone who is Type 1 (and must take insulin to process the sugar in his or her body) or Type 2 (resistant to insulin).

All diabetics are at risk for amputation, organ failure, blindness and death if they fail to keep their blood sugar levels under control. To increase the chances of avoiding these disastrous complications, diabetics must follow strict regimens of diet, exercise and keeping up with medication.

It’s hard every day; during the holidays, diabetes management sometimes seems impossible.

Many of us struggle in this season because of how our culture celebrates, and not just with food. The frenzied pace, extra errands, changing schedules, and often lack of sleep—all this can upset blood sugar levels. This means more Grinch this time of year.

Every year each of us must cope with the siren call to overindulge in high-fat, high-carbohydrate meals that can send our blood sugars soaring and fell our best efforts to keep this disease under control.

Fifteen years after diagnosis

For me, the advent of the 2014 winter holidays comes less than a month after passing my 15th anniversary with this chronic illness. Even though I’m still standing on my own two feet and continue to have feeling in my toes, my kidneys and eyes still work and my blood pressure continues to be excellent, I’m not doing well.

In a letter following a recent physical, my doctor wrote one word to describe my blood sugar control: “Horrible.”

My weight remains far too high for me to make my diabetes less of a health issue. What used to be manageable with diet and exercise now requires seven pills and three shots daily. I have a hard time keeping up with the regimen. A monitoring device attached to my body delivers a continuous blood sugar reading that serves as a constant reminder that – for now at least—I’m not winning this battle.

Sometime in the next month, I’ll probably regret admitting that. When we diabetics are around family, friends and food, especially during the winter holidays, we often find ourselves confronted by well-meaning relatives and friends with mostly well-intentioned tips for diabetes management.

“How can you eat THAT?” some might say.

Or, “Dude, you need to get on the treadmill.”

Or, “My aunt went on this diet. It cured her diabetes.”

Or, “Take cinnamon before every meal. It’ll level off your blood sugar.”

Then there are the tempters.

“Just one little bite isn’t going to kill you.”

Or: “Come on, it’s Christmas.”

The flood of mixed messages suck, on top of having to pass by the dessert, the champagne and the multiple starches served at every meal. We not only try (and often fail) to ignore the competing suggestions of people we care for, but we tend to internalize their voices. They chatter at us constantly as we contemplate the slice of mincemeat pie or the bowl of wine jelly.

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Daily finger pricks and blood glucose meters are a way of life for diabetics.

However, it is possible to make it through.  And this goes for anyone who is dreading something about the holidays, whether a dysfunctional family gathering, grief over a loss, or isolation. You don’t have to be a bystander waiting to get hit by your nemesis, but you do have to think ahead.

Sticking to a strategy

It’s vital to have a plan. That and keep the internal voices to one.

Last week, on Thanksgiving, I attended two large meals, one at church and the other at home. Whatever would be served would be high calorie and high quantity, so I had to figure out how to attack the situation and not let it attack me.

I took a slightly larger amount of insulin that morning and planned to eat no more than one plateful at each meal. I also focused on eating much more slowly.

Both times I sent food back, feeling full before I cleaned my plate.  My blood sugar remained in the normal range all day.

It wasn’t just the plan, though. Somehow I managed to reach a state of calm that day that made working that plan a whole lot easier. Was it God/my higher power/the universe giving me a momentary sense of peace? And isn’t peace—not the food, calories, shopping or stress—what we all want and need during the holidays?

Whatever the source of my help, I hope it will remain with me for the rest of this season … and with all of you who face holiday anxieties and temptations.

Ben Smith can be reached at [email protected]

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.

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