5 Keys to Eating for Diabetes and Heart Health

Published on: 11/18/2023
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Want to know how to tweak your eating for diabetes and heart health? It may be simpler than you think!

People often give me a laundry list of issues when we first meet and say they just don’t know what to eat anymore. After they avoid this, and cut out that, and have less x, y and z … they’re left with nothing. And eating feels really boring.

Guess what though? Many of the health issues that have accumulated over the years all come back to conditions that are actually really closely related.

Clients are often relieved to hear that the focus of our work together actually comes down to a few foundational shifts.

Why? Because issues like high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, high blood sugars, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and extra weight are closely linked issues. They are also chronic issues, meaning that they develop over years. 

With a few key long-term strategies you can shift that progression and preserve your health for the future.

That may sound like a lot of work. But the good news is that when you make changes to your eating and your lifestyle to lower your risks in one area, your changes also help out in other areas at the same time.

Heart disease and diabetes background

Before we get into the main ways you can shift your eating for both diabetes and heart health, it might be helpful to understand a bit of what’s going on in your body.

A bit about heart disease

Heart disease is an umbrella term that includes high cholesterol, high blood pressure, angina, heart attack, stroke, peripheral arterial disease and congestive heart failure. Any issue that affects how your heart or cardiovascular system works, can be considered heart disease.

High cholesterol or high blood pressure can change your arteries and veins which changes how well your heart can do its job. 

When it comes to cholesterol, having high amounts of either triglycerides or LDL-cholesterol can raise the risk of oxidation in your arteries. Oxidation can make your arteries harden (atherosclerosis) and plaque builds up. Having plaque means more narrow arteries and it can break off as a clot with the danger of it creating a blockage. 

Both atherosclerosis and plaque build-up can also lead to high blood pressure which puts a strain on your heart muscle as well as your kidneys and other organs. 

A bit about prediabetes and type 2 diabetes

Prediabetes is basically the stage before type 2 diabetes. Being diagnosed with prediabetes does not mean you’ll definitely get type 2 diabetes, though you will be at a much higher risk. While this can feel like a scary diagnosis, much like being at the top of a massive rollercoaster, finding out you have prediabetes is an opportunity. Unfortunately, many people don’t get diagnosed with prediabetes (a topic for another day) and don’t get the support they need to make dietary changes to prevent progressing further.

Type 2 diabetes is a disorder where your body

1. makes less insulin and/or

2. doesn’t use your insulin as well as it used to (aka insulin resistance or decreased insulin sensitivity)

When either of these happen, glucose (a type of sugar found in food) hangs around your blood longer than it should. Because your body knows this is a problem, it starts to compensate. So instead of that glucose being escorted into your muscles as fuel, it’s kicked out of your blood to anywhere it will fit. This might mean getting stored for later, such as in a triglyceride (a fat storage ‘container’) or it can be ‘tucked away’ as sugar in nooks and crannies where it shouldn’t be, such as eyes or toes.

Having too much sugar hanging around in the blood also increases inflammation in your body which helps set the stage for oxidation. 

Enter one of the links between heart disease and diabetes …

How are heart disease and diabetes linked?

Having diabetes creates a risk for having heart disease, all on its own.

There is so much unknown about how this complex process actually happens and this article can’t possibly go in-depth with it. Some people with long-standing diabetes have few complications … while others may have severe complications, including heart disease.  

Commonly, people see these as separate issues, needing separate diets. But taking care of your heart, especially if you have diabetes already, is just as important as taking care of your blood sugars. 

As we’ve already covered, inflammation and oxidation are happening in both heart diseases and diabetes. In fact, having diabetes creates a risk of getting atherosclerosis (remember that’s the hardening of your arteries). This means that people who don’t have a previous personal or family history of heart disease are at risk of high cholesterol and high blood pressure (and the related heart problems from those) just because they have diabetes. 

Researchers have found that the risk of a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event is raised for people with diabetes, as if they had aged 15 years. They also found that the risk of having a heart attack or stroke changed from intermediate risk to high risk at a lower age in people with diabetes; on average, men moved into the high risk category at 47.9 years of age and women at age 54.3.

As someone who is marching steadily into my mid-40’s, I find this daunting. Even more shocking is that not only do people with diabetes have a high risk of death from heart disease, but that most people are asymptomatic. This may be because high blood pressure is so often unnoticed unless you get regular check-ups and is known to lead to problems. 

In my program, Nourish your Health, I help clients walk through the foundations of eating well for improved health. At the root of it though is focusing on the keys to eating in a heart healthy way. It’s not about avoiding salt for your blood pressure and avoiding bananas because of diabetes and having to cut out cholesterol because your cholesterol levels are high. Eating for diabetes and heart health, doesn’t have to come with a list of food you’re not allowed to eat again!

Eating to lower risks from diabetes and heart health 

Low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, fasting, shakes … there are more diets out there than I care to keep track of! (Just one of the many reasons I teach clients how to build their own flexible and foundational way of eating).

While lower carb eating does show a lot of benefit for many people with heart disease and with diabetes, it might not feel like a good fit for everyone. It also doesn’t have to mean ultra-low carb, like keto.

More importantly, focusing all your energy on cutting out sugar and carbs (without paying attention to adding in healthful foods) may not help as much as you were hoping for.

Whether you’re choosing lower carb eating or not, here are some key, foundational parts of a healthful eating pattern to help lower your risks of chronic, progressive health conditions.

5 keys to eating for lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugars

Increase plant foods 

  • aim for more fruits and veggies at every meal and most snacks
  • experiment with weekly meatless meals
  • use beans … in everything!
  • read food labels on commercially prepared plant-based products to know if it’s actually more healthful or just full of salt and saturated fats!

This is something we talk about often in my program, Nourish your Health. Learn more about the Nourish your Health program.

Use polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats 

  • saturated fats are those that come from animals and animal products – think lard, butter and red meats
  • polyunsaturated fats are often found in plant-based foods and oily fish – examples are walnuts, flaxseeds, olive oil, canola oil, salmon, cod, herring and sardines

Choose foods with low glycemic index and glycemic load

These are 2 tools that work together to help you understand how quickly a food or drink will raise your blood sugar level after having them as well as how much it will raise your blood sugar levels.

By eating foods lower on the glycemic index you can have more stability in your blood sugar levels which can be important for diabetes, of course, but also can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke, help you feel full longer and may help you lose some of your extra weight.

Visit the Diabetes Canada website for more information about the Glycemic Index.

Focus in on fibre

Fibre in general is something that most Canadians need to get more of!

Specifically aim to get more soluble fibre like what’s found in oats, barley, eggplant, apples or almonds for example.

Soluble fibre is 1 quick-win way you can start lowering your LDL cholesterol in the next 3 months. Bonus, it also helps you feel full longer and helps your digestion.

Want to learn more quick-win ways to eat for your heart health and better blood sugars? Download the free guide!

Include soy, nuts and seeds as protein sources

Soy, nuts and seeds can help with lowering LDL cholesterol. Soy can include soy milk and tofu which also helps with using more plant-based proteins!

As you can see, many of the foundational parts of healthful eating included here are messages you’ve heard before, for one or all of the health concerns you’ve looked online about. And there’s reason for that.

But knowing these things and actually doing them (consistently, sustainably and for the long-run) are 2 very different things!

If you want help to not only learn about eating for your heart health, but also to get the tips, guidance and accountability you need to actually do it, The Nourish your Health Program has been created just for you.

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Hi there! I’m Angela

I help people who are consicious of their changing health to build sustainable, real-life eating habits so they can improve their labs, avoid medications and get to their best weight withouth being the one on-and-off new diets all the time.

Learn More

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Improve your labs in the next 3 months

Getting somewhere with your health shouldn’t mean going ‘all in’ with heroic effort. Use these simple swaps to get you started for improved labs and life-long health habits that you can live with.

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