red heart in pile of white sugar

As a Registered Dietitian, I have the pleasure of helping people shift their eating choices in a way that’s most effective for their diabetes and heart health. Regularly when I first meet with someone, they give me a laundry list of issues and tell me they just don’t know what to eat any more after they avoid this and cut out that and have less x, y and z. 

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

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

How? Because concerns about cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugars, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and extra weight are all closely linked issues. They’re also chronic issues, meaning that they develop over years, even before someone ever gets a diagnosis. 

With strategic, long-term shifts you can turn that progression around and preserve your health for the future.

And not only for either your diabetes or your heart heath – when you make changes to your eating and lifestyle to lower your risks in one area, your changes also help out in other areas at the same time.

Before we get into how diabetes and heart health are linked, let’s first take a quick look at them separately.



A bit about heart health

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 work, can be considered heart disease.

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. This plaquee makes your arteries narrow and 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. 

The goals of eating for heart health are to minimize LDL cholesterol formation, lower oxidation and inflammation, keep blood pressure in balance and prevent the loss of muscle tissues (including your heart muscle).



A bit about diabetes

Just for context, I should point out that I’m referring to type 2 diabetes in this article, though the process leading to high blood sugars begins well before a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is made. In fact, this process can start 10-15 years before your doctor notices your blood sugars starting to rise and a diagnosis of prediabetes is made, even.


In diabetes, 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)

Either, or both of these issues, can happen for a number of reasons.


When either of these happen, glucose (the main 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 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 eventually left as sugar in nooks and crannies of your body 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, something we’ve already talked about as being a problem for heart health.

The goals of eating for diabetes are to maximize your body’s ability to use your insulin, minimize how much extra insulin needs to be made (since your inefficient insulin isn’t able to lower the sugar in your blood) and prevent damage to your body’s cells, arteries and organs from extra sugar staying in your blood.




How are diabetes and heart health linked?

In a previous article, What is Metabolic Syndrome?, I’ve talked about inflammation and oxidation and their roles in the domino effect of metabolic health. When it comes to diabetes and heart health, it’s another chicken-and-egg situation about what comes first. It’s a complex relationship in our body.

Commonly, people see diabetes and heart health as separate issues, needing separate changes or plans of action. But taking care of your heart, especially if you have diabetes already, is just as important as taking care of your blood sugars (which might feel like a bit of a surprise since the first thing many people are told when they are diagnosed is that diabetes is a ‘sugar’ problem … but that’s a story for another day).

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 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 cholesterol and blood pressure so often go unnoticed, damaging arteries silently, unless you’re getting regular check-ups.

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. You can eat in a sustainable and flexible way that helps all of the above, without having to remember all the foods you’re not allowed to eat anymore.  




Eating to lower risks from diabetes and heart disease

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/or diabetes, it might not feel like a good fit for everyone.

And more importantly, focusing on cutting out sugar and carbs without paying attention to other parts of your eating 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 to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugars

These are a just a few of the tips clients get as members of The Nourish your Health Program. If you’re looking for more help in learning how to use this in your own life as well as the resources and accountability to make it happen, I’m happy to chat about if this program is the best next step for you! Learn more about The Nourish your Health Program or sign up for a Free Introduction Q&A call with me.


1. Increase plant foods

  • aim for more fruits and veggies at every meal and most snacks
  • plan a meatless meal on a weekly basis
  • get creative with pulses (btw did you know that every year we get to celebrate the amazingness of pulses – February 10th is World Pulses Day!)
  • read food labels on commercially prepared plant-based products to know if it’s actually more healthful (specifically watch for salt and saturated fats)

2. Use polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats 

Research shows that not only cutting back on saturated fats, but swapping them for polyunsaturated fats, can help lower your heart health risks.

  • 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

Eating enough food at meals and snacks is one way to help control cravings through your day. Using fats and oils as part of your eating can help you make sure you’re satisfying your hunger, without using extra carbs and sugars to fill in the gaps.


3. 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. It can also decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke, help you feel full longer and may help you lose some of your extra weight.


4. Focus 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 lowers LDL cholesterol and helps you feel full longer, meaning feeling more satisfied with your eating and reaching for extra snacks less often.


5. Include soy, nuts and seeds as protein sources

Soy, nuts and seeds are part of the Portfolio dietary pattern, which has been seen to lower LDL cholesterol by 11%.

  • aim for 30-45g of nuts, including tree nuts and peanuts
  • soy can include soy milk, tofu and soy-based meat alternatives.

This might feel like a bit of a stretch for you and if it does, know that you’re not alone! But it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing when it comes to using new foods in your eating. Soy milk can a great way to add in a plant-based protein and it gives you extra fibre at the same time!




Eating for both diabetes and heart health

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap in eating well for both diabetes and heart health.

Many of the healthful eating tips I’ve shared here are messages you’ve likely heard before, for one or all of the health concerns you’ve looked online about.

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

By using real-life habits to shift your eating with some of these foundational patterns, it’s possible to get better lab results, take less medications and lose some extra weight without feeling restricted or disappointed that your willpower just can’t seem to last more than a few months.


If you want help to not only learn about eating in a sustainable way for your heart health, but also to get the resources, guidance and accountability you need to actually do it, sign up for The Nourish your Health Program





Eating for both diabetes and heart health