The holidays can be the best of times or the worst of times for a pre-diabetic or diabetic individual—or for anyone worried about gaining weight. You will be tempted over the coming weeks by countless delectable meals that are seemingly impossible to resist. Exotic rice, herb-seasoned potatoes, savory stuffing, crunchy breads, sweet rolls, as well as an endless parade of pies, cakes, cookies, muffins, candies, sugary sweets, beer, wine, and mixed drinks: it’s a recipe for a diabetes disaster.
If you are among the millions who tend to overconsume, gain weight, and see their blood sugar levels skyrocket for a sustained 30 days, let this coming holiday season be different for you.
I suggest the answer lies in three words: eat, chew, live. These three words should be your mantra and a trigger to remind you of your priorities when you find yourself tempted. They synthesize an entire philosophy about eating, nutrition, and food—that I have developed over the course of 20 years researching type 2 diabetes. The following explanation shows how these words can help you avoid overeating and maintain normal blood-sugar levels in the coming months.
EAT TO ENJOY
The word eat should remind you that eating should be an enjoyable act, and that you should eat what you want when you need it, meaning when you are hungry. The only exception is grains, which I will discuss. You can relearn to eat for enjoyment, just as you did when you were a toddler. If you can’t recall your own childhood, watch any toddler eat and you will immediately see what I mean. Toddlers eat only when they are hungry regardless of when they are offered food, they eat what they want, regardless of what is served, and they eat only the amount needed to satisfy them with no qualms about leaving food on the plate, tabletop, or floor. Each time toddlers feel hungry, their “intuition” tells them what to eat and how much of it, and they enjoy it.
As we become adults, our sensation of hunger is often corrupted by plentiful foods that are highly designed, packaged, marketed, and advertised. We also often eat in response to stress and unconscious triggers such as anxiety, peer pressure, worrisome problems, and the learned behavior of gluttony. The holiday season tends to bring out these unhealthy eating habits when we stop eating in response to hunger and the need for nutrition.
Since you were a toddler once, you still have those faculties stored in your brain. With conscious attention, you can reactivate the same method of eating you practiced in your younger days and remind yourself that your goal is to eat only enough to satisfy your real hunger and enjoy every moment of it.
Begin by asking yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If so, your own intuition will lead you to select foods that contain the nutrients your body needs to replenish. You don’t have to be guided by some expert who has no knowledge of your body’s nutrient requirements telling you what to eat. Once you have reactivated this method of eating and enjoying, you can practice it at any gathering and, in fact, during any meal to maintain your body weight and blood sugar.
Don’t feel pressured to eat food unless you really want it. It’s more important to stick with the “eat for nutrition” philosophy if you are being served a multicourse holiday meal. You may have to tell a gracious host who has spent the day cooking and insists that you eat second or third helpings that you are simply full, or that you are choosing not to overeat in an effort to take better care of yourself.
Allow yourself to appreciate that you do not need to be eating to have quality social time with friends and family. Focus on enjoying the experience of being with people without food as a crutch to take away stresses. Talk and, more importantly, listen. Interact with the people around you and hear their stories.
The word chew is a reminder of three key concepts that can help you control your blood sugar and the tendency to overeat. First, avoid foods that you cannot chew. Rather than drinking fruit juices, eat real fruit. Rather than slurping down mashed potatoes, eat whole potatoes. For example, keeping the skin on a potato is one way to make you chew it. When you can’t or don’t chew a food, it is very easy to consume too much of it, with one swallow following another in rapid succession.
Secondly, reduce your consumption of grains—such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn—as much as possible. This admonition may seem paradoxical because you can chew corn and foods made from wheat or other grain flours, but my reasoning is based on the fact that each molecule of complex carbohydrate in grains incorporates up to 200,000 molecules of glucose—all of which will be quickly absorbed into your blood after digestion. When you overconsume grains over a long period of time, you effectively fill your fat cells with triglycerides produced by your liver’s attempt to clear away excess glucose. At that point, each time you consume grains, the triglycerides have nowhere to go, so they break down immediately into fatty acids that flow through your bloodstream. Your body’s cells are like hybrid cars that can use gasoline or electricity to function. In particular, your muscle cells can burn either glucose (sugar) or fatty acids, and they do this between meals when blood glucose is low and your fat cells release stored fatty acids. Your muscle cells preferentially burning the fatty acids on a regular basis leaves glucose floating in your bloodstream—now you have high blood sugar.
So chew also reminds us that despite their delicious chewiness grain products are the key culprits in raising blood sugar. It will be hard to resist the many holiday treats that might be part of your family’s tradition, so sample them lightly, but refrain from overindulging, knowing that eating grains is the single most important factor promoting weight gain and high blood-sugar levels.
Third, saying to yourself “eat, chew, live” each time you sit down to a meal is also a way to become more mindful of your eating habits. Chewing your food slowly not only helps you savor and enjoy every morsel of it, but it gives your brain time to detect the nutrients coming into your mouth through your taste buds and smell receptors. Giving your brain the chance to sense your consumption is what allows it to switch off its reward response for eating that food. That is the time to stop eating. In this way, chewing slowly is key to avoiding overeating.
LIVE THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT
The last word in “eat, chew, live” refers to the fact that the holidays are not just about food. Allow yourself to appreciate that you do not need to be eating to have quality social time with friends and family. Focus on enjoying the experience of being with people without food as a crutch to take away stresses. Talk and, more importantly, listen. Interact with the people around you and hear their stories. If you are offered food or drinks, eat and drink only if you are truly hungry and thirsty. If you are not, politely refuse until you are ready.
One of the benefits you get out of the “eat, chew, live” approach to the holidays is that you do not have to go around constantly explaining that you are on a diet or counting calories in front of others. Nor do you need to feel guilty that you cannot live up to the rules some third-party diet calls for. The only restriction I suggest you place on yourself is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of grains. This one measure alone will go a long way toward improving your health during the holidays. If you adhere to this advice, you will find that unlike prior years, you will not gain a lot of weight. And if you have diabetes, you will easily be able to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels.
Most of all, the “eat, chew, live” method of experiencing the holidays completely supports the beauty and charm of the season—the opportunity to enjoy what you eat to the fullest while spending quality time with friends and family.
John M. Poothullil, MD is the author of Eat, Chew, Live: 4 Revolutionary Ideas to Prevent Diabetes, Lose Weight and Enjoy Food, which presents a radical new approach to diabetes based on the scientific explanation that high blood sugar is not caused by insulin resistance but by overeating grain-based products that trigger a switch in how your body burns fatty acids for fuel rather than glucose. The book offers insights and guidance to help you prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes.