Diabetes and Heart Health - What's the Connection?

Valentine’s Day isn’t the only thing going on in February. It’s also American Heart Month. Many people are not aware of the close connection between diabetes and heart disease, but heart disease is actually one of the most common complications of diabetes. It’s so common that having diabetes actually doubles your risk for heart attack or stroke.

The question is – what can you do about it?

To start, you should work with your doctor to monitor your ABC’s (A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels) and keep them in your target range. Your physician can help you set target ranges for your A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol that will work for you. Making healthy lifestyle choices is essential to reach and stay in those target ranges. What you eat can have a great impact on all three of these.

So, what exactly is a heart-healthy diet?

You are probably already trying to follow a diabetes meal plan that focuses on controlling your carbohydrate intake. Eating a heart-healthy diet on top of meal planning for diabetes may sound overwhelming.  
But don’t be intimidated - heart-healthy foods are also good choices if you have diabetes!

As always, it is still important to watch your carbohydrate intake and portion sizes to control your blood glucose. Just remember that there is more to meal planning than just the carbohydrate intake - it is about making healthy choices within all of the different food groups. 

1. One of the most important things you can do to eat heart-healthy is limit foods that are high in unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Some simple steps to help you do this are:

  • limiting the solid fats that you use in cooking (such as butter, lard, and vegetable shortening)
  • choosing healthy cooking methods like baking, broiling, grilling, steaming, or microwaving
  • choose more fresh foods rather than processed meat, sweets, and other processed snacks
  • opt for lean protein foods like beans, soy-based products, skinless chicken or turkey breast, and fish
  • choose low-fat or non-fat dairy diary products
  • learn more about what foods have unhealthy saturated and trans fats, as well as cholesterol by going to our Fats page on diabetes.org.

2. Replace those unhealthy fat sources with sources of healthy unsaturated fats. This means eating fish (not fried) two or more times each week. Other foods that contain healthy fats include: avocados, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils like canola, olive, corn, etc. Check out our Fats page for more information on which foods have healthy versus unhealthy fats.

3. A heart-healthy diet is also high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods are all high in important nutrients, especially fiber. Obviously vegetables, fruit, and whole grains will also contribute carbohydrates, so make sure you are eating portions that work with your meal plan.

4. Sodium is another issue. If you have diabetes, you should try to keep your sodium intake to less than 2300 mg per day. If you have diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension), you should aim for 1500 mg per day or less. Some tips to decrease the sodium in your diet include:

  • eating more fresh foods and less processed foods
  • buying low-sodium canned foods and soups
  • rinsing canned vegetables to remove about 40% of the sodium
  • checking labels – pickled foods are particularly high in sodium
  • omitting salt when you in cook and flavor foods with herbs and spices
  • do not salt food once it is on the table, remove the salt shaker if you have to
  • beware of restaurant foods and limit the times you eat out each week – a restaurant meal can easily have more than 1500 mg of sodium 


Easy Ways You Can Include More Heart-Healthy Foods

  • Instead of packing chips or cookies for a snack, pack a serving of nuts (a serving is usually about ¼ cup, or a handful). Nuts are full of heart-healthy fats and there’s no need to refrigerate them – they are an easy grab-and-go snack
  • Switch from buying chicken wings, legs or chicken thighs to chicken breasts. Chicken breasts are the leanest part of the chicken which means they are lowest in cholesterol and saturated fat. If your budget is tight and you need to buy less expensive chicken thighs or legs, at least remove the skin before cooking it. 
  • Don’t use butter to sauté or to coat your roasted veggies. Instead, use just a tablespoon or two of olive oil or another vegetable oil. (Olive oil is high in mono-unsaturated fats which are a type of healthy fat.)
  • Instead of having steak for dinner, buy fish fillets. AnyAll fish provides unsaturated fats as well and hasve less unhealthy fats than red meat. Choose salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, rainbow trout, or herring some of the time. These types are also good sources of omega-three fatty acids which help keep your arteries clear and unblocked. Broil, bake, or grill fish with a bit of olive oil, herbs, and spices. Check our recipe archive for other fish recipes. 
  • Add avocado, a source of healthy fat, to your salads, wraps, or sandwiches.
  • Add more vegetables to your meals and decrease the amount of meat you use. This is easy to do for casseroles, chili, soup, sandwiches, and salads.
  • When you can, plan a few meatless meals each week. Good substitutes for meat include beans, tofu, veggie burgers, lentils, and other sources of vegetarian protein.
  • For lunchmeat, choose lean chicken or turkey that is labeled reduced- or low-sodium. When you can, buy fresh lean meat from the store on the weekends and cook it. Then, use it throughout the week for lunches instead of the highly processed deli meats.
  • Make a few simple switches – from white bread to 100% whole grain bread, have fruit for dessert or a side dish instead of fried or processed foods, and switch from regular soda to diet or other low-calorie drinks.
  • When you have leftovers, freeze them in individual meal-size containers. Instead of buying and heating up highly-processed frozen dinners, you’ll have a healthier, homemade frozen dinner right in your freezer.
  • Choose whole-grain, high-fiber foods. Try a grain like barely or quinoa for a new taste.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Try to eat a variety of colors. Check out our video archive for ideas on using vegetables and fruit.
  • If you drink alcohol, stick to 1 drink or less for women and 2 drinks or less for men.

If you are interested in more heart-healthy recipes, you may be interested in our cookbook Diabetes and Heart-Healthy Meals For Two, produced jointly by the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association.

As you can see, it’s easy to follow a diabetes meal plan and also include heart-healthy foods. Give your loved ones and yourself the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift this year – a healthy heart! Check out this month’s heart-healthy meal plan and recipes to get started.

On-the-Go Tips

Nuts are a heart-healthy snack that requires little prep. See how they fit with your meal plan.

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This month, we're bringing you a day of heart-healthy meals - good for Valentine’s Day or any other day of the month!

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