Diabetes and Heart Disease: The ABCs of Prevention

When you have diabetes, keeping track of your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help cut your risk of heart disease.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

Diabetes is commonly associated with a greater risk for blindness, infections and amputation. Those are serious problems.

But adults with diabetes are also two to four times more likely than those without diabetes to die from heart problems or to have a stroke. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of early death for people with diabetes.

Over time, high blood sugar levels are associated with more fatty deposits in the walls of blood vessels. Fatty materials can build up and form a plaque. This can narrow or block blood vessels. Plaque can make it more likely that a clot will form. This can restrict blood flow to your heart.

Controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol can help lower your risk of heart disease. You should get regular tests for all of these. And if all of these levels are normal, that’s fantastic. It’s absolutely vital that you keep them in the normal range by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and following your diabetes management program.

However, others with diabetes may already have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

That said, if you do have diabetes, you can help keep those levels in check by taking important lifestyle steps.

Eat heart-healthy foods
Eating the right mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates may vary according to each person’s needs. However, knowing the amount of carbohydrates you are taking in will help you control your blood sugar. Include 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories in your diet. High-fiber foods include oatmeal, whole-grain breads and cereals, dried beans and peas and fruits and vegetables.

Cut down on foods with saturated fat. These include fatty meat, poultry skin, butter, dairy products with fat, lard and tropical oils. Limit your saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of total calories.

Keep your cholesterol to 200 milligrams a day. Cholesterol is found in meat, eggs and dairy. If you already have heart disease, your doctor may want you to eat even less cholesterol each day.

Look in the nutrition facts section of food labels to find out if a product has trans fat. It can be found in crackers, cookies, microwave popcorn, cake mixes and salad dressings. Trans fat can raise blood cholesterol. Avoiding trans fat is the goal.

Get moving
Think of small ways to increase your activity level, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator. But make sure you check with your doctor first to determine the safe level of exercise for you.

Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise spread over at least three days a week. Don’t go more than two straight days without exercise. Provided you don’t have any contraindications, people with type 2 diabetes should also aim to do muscle-strengthening exercises for the major muscle groups at least two days a week. Always get your doctor’s approval before starting an exercise program.

Limit alcohol
If you choose to drink, limit your intake. Men should aim for two drinks or less per day. Women should aim for one drink or less a day.

Slim down
Talk with your doctor about how much weight he or she wants you to lose if you are overweight. Ask a registered dietitian for help with meal planning. And go slowly. Aim to lose no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds each week.

Ditch the cigarettes
Smoking doubles your risk of getting heart disease. It cuts the amount of oxygen that goes to your organs, raises bad cholesterol and raises blood pressure.

Make a quit plan. Set a quit date and tell people what it is. Write down your reasons for quitting. Toss your cigarettes, matches, lighters and ashtrays. Ask a friend who smokes to quit with you. Resources like smokefree.gov provide advice, information and encouragement.

Ask your doctor about aspirin
Studies have shown that low doses of aspirin each day can help cut the risk of a heart attack or stroke in some people. But aspirin is not right for everyone. Be sure you get medical advice before taking it.

If you have diabetes as well as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, here are some additional steps you could take.

Blood pressure
Follow your doctor’s instructions for taking your blood pressure medications and incorporating lifestyle changes. Those include adopting a Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)-style diet, losing weight, lowering your sodium intake, increasing your potassium intake, moderating your alcohol intake and getting more physical activity.

Cholesterol
Eat less saturated fat, cholesterol and avoid trans fat. Eat more omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and plant sterols/stanols. Those are substances that keep the body from absorbing cholesterol. Follow your doctor’s guidance for losing weight and getting more exercise. Your doctor may also prescribe statins.

If you already have heart disease, it’s crucial that you work with your doctor to prevent any further events. Your doctor may give you different (stricter) lifestyle recommendations. You can do it. Just be sure to work with your team, take your medications, live a healthy lifestyle and keep all of your medical appointments.

Heart disease — and its prevention — should be taken seriously. But stay optimistic. You do have control over your diabetes and its threats.