Eating With Diabetes: Party Food

Birthday parties, holidays and other social events provide ample opportunity to relax and have a great time with friends and family. Attending a party when you're trying to lose weight is hard enough; for many people with diabetes, an invitation to a party can be even more stressful. The underlying cause of all the worry is usually not the people or the event itself, but the food. Good food. Food that "a diabetic shouldn't eat." As a result, something that should be fun turns into a reason to panic.

Relax. By planning ahead and applying some smart strategies when making food choices, it is absolutely possible for people with diabetes to live it up at any party or social event (without giving up on diabetes-management goals).

Planning Ahead

Most people expect to indulge at a party. This is not desirable for anyone who is trying to manage their weight, but it can be especially problematic for people with diabetes, since overeating can lead to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). In the short term, high blood sugar can cause fatigue, nausea, headaches and a host of other miserable symptoms that will put a damper on your evening. In the long term, high blood sugar damages blood vessels and nerves. This damage, with time, causes the serious complications of diabetes: blindness, kidney failure, amputations, heart attacks and strokes.

However, avoiding overeating at a party is easier said than done. Taking a few extra precautions ahead of time can help reduce temptation. Try these tips:
  1. Do some extra exercise before the event. Exercise lowers blood glucose levels and slightly increases the number of calories the body burns for a period of time afterward. For many, it may also help curb the appetite since the digestive tract slows during exercise, as blood flow is diverted to other areas of the body that need more energy.
  2. Eat before you go. Enjoy a healthy snack one to two hours before heading out to a party. It is much easier to avoid temptation when you don't feel overly hungry.
  3. Ask the host if you can bring a dish. Offering to bring food to the party is not only helpful to the host, but it can also ensure that there is at least one lower-calorie food choice available for a snack. Just be sure to take something healthy, such as a vegetable tray with a low-fat dip.

Making Choices

The cornerstone of healthy living with diabetes is making good choices as consistently as possible. The best diet for someone with diabetes is low in fat, sodium and added sugar, and high in fiber—most of the time. But on occasion, it is entirely possible to include a little "junk food" into any healthy diet. The key is to do so without really raising blood sugar levels or adding many extra calories.

You can accomplish this by substituting the desired treat for other foods in the meal instead of eating a meal as usual and then adding extras. So in order to prevent calorie and carbohydrate overload, simply remove one or two carbohydrate-food items from your meal and substitute the desired treat. (See an example of this in tip #2 below.) This concept is intended to be used for special occasions (such as a party) and not on a regular basis. That said, the beauty of the concept is that you don't have to feel like you're missing out on the fun, or that you need "special foods" made just for you at a party. No one has to give up foods they love because of diabetes. They will, however, need to put a little more thought into what they choose to eat.

How to Eat Right at a Party (Without Depriving Yourself) 

In order to successfully include traditional party fare, it is important to have a good understanding of the role nutrition plays in diabetes, as well as knowledge of basic meal planning for people with diabetes. Below is a simple overview of the general guidelines. It is highly recommended that everyone with diabetes receive self-management training from a qualified healthcare professional in order to gain in-depth knowledge of meal planning and to help create a meal plan that best fits into their lifestyle. Here are the basics you need to know to eat smart during any celebration:

1. Remember that all carbohydrate-containing foods, not just sugars alone, affect your blood sugar.

This is the foundation of diabetes meal planning. Years ago, it was thought that only foods that contained sugar would raise blood glucose levels. As a result, people with diabetes were instructed not to eat foods with sugar in them (i.e. candies, cakes, cookies, etc.). Thus, the belief that people with diabetes can never eat any sugar was born. This is a myth.

It is now understood that ALL carbohydrate foods—starches, fruit, milk and sweets—affect blood sugar levels in roughly the same way. For example, a 15-gram serving of sugar (1/2-cup of ice cream) and a 15-gram serving of carbohydrate as starch (one slice of bread) will both produce about the same rise in blood sugar. Because of this similarity, it makes absolutely no sense that a person with diabetes can eat starch but not sugar. In the end, what becomes most important is the portion size of whatever carbohydrate foods are chosen. If possible, read the nutrition label (see tip #4 below) to determine the carbohydrate amount.

Another myth worth mentioning at this point is that "sugar-free" foods (including foods made with artificial sweeteners) won't raise blood sugar. Remember, ALL carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels. While sugar-free products have not been sweetened with sugar, many still contain some form of carbohydrates and will still affect blood glucose levels.

2. Try basic carbohydrate counting.

This is a method of meal planning in which individuals have a "carbohydrate budget" at each meal and snack. The carbohydrate budget can be counted in grams or servings. A typical budget is 45 grams (three servings) of total carbohydrate at each meal for women and 60 grams (four servings) for men. For snacks, both men and women tend to aim for 15 to 30 grams (one or two servings) of carbohydrates.

The beauty of a carbohydrate budget is that it can be "spent" on any carbohydrate food—including sugar or special treats. This is the best way to include "junk food" in any situation without necessarily going over your carbohydrate goals. Here's an example of how a person with diabetes might choose to spend their carbohydrates during a meal at a cookout:
Example 1 Example 2
3 oz. hamburger patty 3 oz. hamburger patty (no bun)
Bun for hamburger
(2 carb servings, 30 grams)
1 small frosted cupcake
(2 carb servings, 30 grams)
lettuce, tomato & onion lettuce, tomato & onion
1/3 cup baked beans
(1 carb serving, 15 grams)
1/3 cup baked beans
(1 carb serving, 15 grams)
carbohydrate-free beverage carbohydrate-free beverage

Both examples have roughly 45 grams (three servings) of carbohydrates. The cupcake in example two is substituted for the hamburger bun in example 1.

3. Make smart food choices.

At most parties, cake, ice cream and punch are staples. While it is okay for people with diabetes to enjoy sweets like these when making smart carbohydrate swaps and keeping portions in check, these tips will help you make the best choices for your blood sugar when eating at a party.
  • Instead of cake AND ice cream, how about just one or the other? In general, assume ice cream is a high-sugar (carbohydrate) choice that is best to skip. While not "low-carb," cake may be a better choice.
  • When it comes to the cake, go naked. Scrape off all or most of the icing and enjoy a small serving of the cake itself. A two-inch square of cake with no icing provides approximately 15 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Look for the protein. Select a few cubes of cheese or a couple teaspoons of nuts if they're available. The protein will balance the carbohydrates from the cake, which will help even out blood sugar responses.
  • Eating from a fruit tray can be healthful, but one small serving (1/2 cup) of fruit contains 15 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Look for other alternatives to sandwiches. A small serving of cocktail meatballs, chicken wings or deviled eggs is a great high-protein option, as is cocktail shrimp (skip the cocktail sauce, which is high in sugar).
  • Look for other ways to lessen the carbohydrate impact of other foods: Skip the crust of the quiche or the pastry shell in favor of the spinach and cheese filling; enjoy the cheese without the crackers; take off the top piece of bread or bun when eating a sandwich or make a roll up using deli meat, cheese and a large lettuce leaf.
4. Find information on carbohydrate content and portion sizes.

To help you stick to your nutritional goals at the party, it's wise to refer to nutrition facts labels on any food you might eat. Proper portion size is also important. You may want to invest in a small carbohydrate-counting book that you can carry in your pocket, since not all foods will have labels. You can also use your smartphone to look up nutrition facts for a variety of foods you might encounter at a party.

5. Don't forget the beverage.

Beverages like regular soda, sweet tea, fruit juices, punch and alcohol all contain carbohydrates, and must be counted in your carbohydrate budget during any meal or snack. It's easy to forget about these liquid calories and the carbohydrates they contain. Choose carbohydrate-free drinks, such as water or unsweetened coffee or tea, or diet soda whenever possible. And remember that just because something is labeled "sugar-free" or "no added sugar" does not mean that it's necessarily a carbohydrate-free food. Always read labels and look up the facts before you sip.

6. Go easy on the alcohol.

Do not include more than two alcoholic drinks in a single day. One drink is equal to 5 oz. wine, 1.5 oz liquor (usually one shot) or 12 oz beer. Remember that beer and sweet wines contain carbohydrates that will raise blood sugar more quickly than hard liquor. If choosing a beer, go for light beer, which is lower in carbs than draft beer, lager and ale. Gin, whiskey, rum and vodka are carbohydrate-free, making them the best liquor choices for people with diabetes. But if you're having a mixed drink, choose diet soda or diet tonic water (instead of regular) to save carbs. What should you avoid? Liqueurs. These are very high in carbs and added sugars, and are probably the worst alcohol choice for people with diabetes.

Remember, parties are supposed to be fun! Take advantage of the flexibility of modern diabetes meal planning so you can have a great time!