The Connection between Heart Health and Diabetes

A heart healthy diet is especially important for people with diabetes. Most people know that diet can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels, and those unhealthy cholesterol levels raise the risk for heart disease. A heart healthy diet can do more than improve cholesterol levels.

Heart health is so important to diabetes because diabetes itself raises the risk of heart attack or stroke two to four times higher than the risk for people without diabetes. Having high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure along with diabetes multiplies the risk even more.

High blood pressure, called hypertension, and diabetes together are double trouble for kidney function, too — the two leading causes of kidney failure working together. Heart disease, however, is by far the greatest threat to a person with diabetes.

Your eating habits can contribute to that risk or can work to reduce the threat. You probably know that saturated fat, and especially trans fat, contributes to heart disease, and a healthy diabetes eating plan emphasizes limiting saturated fat.

Excess body weight, common among people with type 2 diabetes, is an independent risk factor for heart disease. But, eating a heart healthy diet is as much about what you should be including in your meals, as what you shouldn’t. Consider the following:

  • Soluble fiber, like the fiber in oats and beans, sweeps unhealthy LDL cholesterol from your system.

  • The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan developed by the National Institutes of Health, which emphasizes eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and getting high levels of calcium, magnesium, and potassium from food, can lower blood pressure within two weeks.

  • Eating foods consistent with the Mediterranean diet, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil, can reduce insulin resistance, reduce general inflammation, and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.

  • People with diabetes seem to excrete vitamin B1, thiamine, at a higher than normal level, and the lowered thiamine levels may contribute to the accelerated formation of blockages in arteries among people with diabetes. Whole grains are a source of thiamine.

  • Plant compounds called flavonoids, found in green tea, cocoa, and citrus fruits, are antioxidants that improve cholesterol levels, and work to prevent the formation of plaques that can block arteries.

The list of how foods benefit heart health, and diabetes too, often by improving sensitivity to insulin, goes on and on, and in some cases it’s clear the compounds can’t come from supplements. There simply is no substitute for a balanced diet, rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats.

Most importantly, a healthy diabetes eating plan includes foods you are pleased to eat. In fact, if you’ve fallen into poor eating habits for the convenience, you will be amazed how satisfying real food will be to your tastes.

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