You’ve probably heard the unfortunate truth before: women have a higher risk of heart disease. Women with diabetes have an even higher risk. As someone who has born with a congenital heart disease myself, (I had open heart surgery when I was just three years old!) I care about heart disease more than most. But as a dietitian and diabetes educator, I also know there are simple things we can do everyday to drastically lower our risk so that we beat those statistics. :)
Following a heart healthy diet is something that everyone should strive for; it’s not just for those living with diabetes and/or heart disease. So please know it doesn’t have to be as complicated and certainly not as restrictive as you may think.
What constitutes heart health? A few of the biggest factors are managing blood pressure, cholesterol levels, engaging in physical activity, not smoking, and managing blood sugar levels.
Here’s a quick review of some of the best nutrition-related strategies for both optimal heart health and blood sugar control:
Fiber, fiber, fiber. You’ve probably heard it before but fiber is absolutely essential to better diabetes management since it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and therefore minimizes the blood sugar response. It also binds to cholesterol to help lower “lousy” LDL levels in the blood, and helps prevent excess carbohydrates from being stored as fat. High fiber choices include quinoa, bran, barley, oats, berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds (chia, flax, hemp), beans and lentils. Aim to eat a minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in foods like tuna, mackerel, salmon, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts, these polyunsaturated fats are extremely heart healthy by reducing inflammation in the body and helping manage triglyceride (a type of fat similar to cholesterol) levels in the blood. When consumed in addition to high fiber foods, they are also very favorable to blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates consumed. If you find it difficult to get enough of these fats into your diet, feel free to grab my free 7 day diabetes meal plan, which has delicious ways to incorporate omega 3 fats into your daily routine. You can also consider taking a high quality fish or cod liver oil supplement. Additionally, if you are vegan, you can take an algae oil supplement to get the same benefits.
Watch the Salt: If you have reduced the amount of added salt you put in your food, that is great...but unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the salt that gets into our diet was added before we even looked at the food. If it comes in a box, bag, or through a window, it is likely high in salt, AKA sodium. This includes processed foods like deli meats, sausages, boxed and frozen food products, canned foods, soups, sauces like soy and pasta sauce, condiments like ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, and pretty much all fast food restaurant items. Thankfully, low-sodium varieties are available for many of these foods which are a better choice and there is a wealth of other seasonings and ways to flavor foods. Salt contributes to fluid retention which causes the heart to have to work harder and also contributes to high blood pressure, making it something necessary to limit in the diet. Aim to eat less than 2400 mg of sodium per day and closer to 1500 mg per day if you have high blood pressure and/or have been told you have heart disease. (Pro tip: If something has more than 350-400 mg of sodium in just one serving, I recommend passing.)
Get moving: Physical activity is truly nature’s best medicine. It exercises your heart muscles to make them stronger, increases your metabolism, and naturally helps reduce the insulin response which means better blood sugar control. Additionally, it can significantly help lower stress levels and improve brain function! Whether it occurs in the gym, the pool, at home, or simply a walk on your lunch break, find ways to get moving and try to make it regular habit.
It is more than possible to make a meaningful contribution to your heart health one food and one step at a time. Your body, your blood sugar, and your heart will all thank you!