December is scattered with diabetic land mines, and things only get worse on holidays themselves. In my case, that’s Christmas, an occasion my family used to celebrate not just with large amounts of carb-laden foods, but by going to the Nutcracker, the world’s most diabetically unfriendly ballet. Featuring a hula-hooping troupe of human candy canes, the entire second act is set in a place called The Land of Sweets, and stars the nemesis of every diabetic ballerina: the Sugar Plum Fairy.
I was lucky — I wasn’t diagnosed with Type 1 till I was 22, which meant I had a childhood full of injection-free holiday treats (and, for that matter, ballets). Believe me, I lived it up: Christmas was a time to make chocolate-dipped peanut butter bars for my grandmother, who had a sweet tooth, and birthday cakes for my dad, who was born on Christmas Eve. My mother and I celebrated the holidays by baking Irish soda bread and laboring over pots of boiling oil to make chrusciki, a traditional Polish cookie made of deep fried dough dipped in powdered sugar. And at college, when my classmates and I decorated a tree with hand-made gingerbread men, I was known for eating cookies off its branches. In other words, as someone who spent her youth with a natural source of insulin, I know all too well what we diabetics are up against. Forget two front teeth — all I want for Christmas is a new pancreas.
It’s easy to let the consequences of our malfunctioning immune systems get in the way of holiday fun, but this year, I’ve decided to adopt a new attitude. I was wandering around a mall a few weeks ago and noticed that I was feeling very satisfied with myself. I tried to figure out why and realized I was feeling virtuous for not spending money when there were so many options around. This made me happy for a moment, till I realized why, exactly, I hadn’t made any purchases: there wasn’t anything that I wanted to buy. I didn’t want faux-fur-lined Dansko clogs; I didn’t need reindeer candle holders from Pottery Barn. Sure, I enjoyed looking around, and I did end up with a $15 box of Aveda tea. But for the most part, being virtuous was easy. Not only did this faux sense of self-control make me feel good about myself, but it left me happier about the few things I did decide to buy.
So what if I were to adopt a similar attitude toward food? It’s easy to bemoan all the things that diabetes makes hard to eat, but there are plenty of high-carb holiday treats that just aren’t that good. Like candy canes, for example. Who needs more than a few licks? Egg nog is great till you see one of those holiday scare stories on the 5 o’clock news about how many calories there are in a cup (343, to be exact). And then, of course, there’s fruitcake — loaded with fat, studded with dried fruit, and completely, totally, unappealing. The list goes on. Christmas Stollen — gross. Rum-spiked fruit punch — fine, till you get up on a table at your office holiday party and insist your boss refer to you as Santa. Cakes that look like yule logs? Totally not worth the insulin.
Approached this way, holiday eating can become almost fun: just surround yourself with food you don’t want and then take pride in saying no. It reminds me of a quote I once heard about Miles Davis. Someone pointed out that what made him such an amazing musician was the notes he didn’t play. So forget feeling guilty about that one Christmas cupcake. Instead, measure your accomplishments by the food you didn’t eat. That way, when you meet a holiday cookie you truly can’t resist –or, in my case, a glass of really rich hot chocolate — you can count up the carbs, turbo-charge your pump, and enjoy.* * *