5 Ways to Protect Your Heart When You Have Diabetes

Keep your heart healthy with these diabetes-friendly lifestyle changes.

Medically reviewed in December 2019

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If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s vital to take steps to protect your heart health. In fact, those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes are at such a higher risk of heart disease, there’s a name for it: diabetic heart disease (DHD). People with diabetes are also more likely to develop heart issues at a younger age and more likely to die from a cardiovascular-related event, like a heart attack or stroke.

The best thing you can do to protect your heart when you have diabetes is to monitor your blood sugar levels and keep up with your prescriptions or other medical treatments.

Certain lifestyle changes can also improve both diabetes and diabetic heart disease, as well as reduce the associated risks, like heart attack. Not sure where to begin? These lifestyle swaps can help.

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Eat a well-balanced diet

A balanced diet is key to overall health, but it’s especially important for people with diabetic heart disease. The food you eat can help maintain blood sugar levels, reduce or maintain weight and provide your body with the heart-healthy nutrients it needs.

In addition to eating lots of veggies and your favorite low-sugar fruits, swap trans and saturated fats from red meat and fried foods for healthy fats from fatty fish like salmon and tuna, nuts and omega-3 rich olive oil. Amp up your fiber intake to at least 30 grams per day and aim for whole grain sources; fiber keeps you fuller for longer and lowers LDL cholesterol, while whole grains digest slower, reducing the risk of an insulin spike.    

Popular diets like the DASH diet or flexitarian diet promote heart health, but won’t leave you feeling deprived at mealtime.

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Maintain a healthy weight

Excess weight is the major risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes, as well as comorbidities like high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. What’s more, excess weight can cause insulin resistance; those who are overweight or obese aren’t able to use insulin as effectively or efficiently.

Developing a weight loss regimen can be tough, but maintaining a well-balanced diet and exercise schedule are a must for heart health. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about the right program for you. You can boost your weight loss by:

  • Keeping a food and activity diary. One study showed that those who kept detailed food diaries doubled their weight loss.
  • Prepping meals. After a long day of work and chores, cooking a healthy meal is likely the last thing on your mind. Make healthy eating easy by preparing a week’s worth of meals at a time. That way, all you have to do is heat it up and enjoy.
  • Partnering up. If you worry you won’t be able to hold yourself accountable, find a diet or workout buddy who will.

A weight loss of just 3 percent can improve hemoglobin A1c and a weight loss of 10 percent can reduce systolic blood pressure to a degree comparable to reduction with medication.

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Move every day

Getting daily activity—even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood—is key to heart health, especially for people living with diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend adults perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (or a combination of the two) per week to control weight, decrease risk of heart disease and strengthen the heart, lungs and muscles.

Movement is also important for keeping blood sugar balanced. Inactivity makes muscle cells more resistant to insulin, which, in turn, may contribute to higher blood sugar levels.

You don’t have to go for a run or do a HIIT workout to reap the benefits of exercise, either. Choose an activity you love to do, then sneak extra steps into your day by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, taking a post-dinner walk or marching in place while you watch your favorite TV show.

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Kick the tobacco habit

We all know smoking has countless negative effects on our health, but smokers with diabetes have an even higher risk of developing:

  • Heart disease, stroke and kidney disease
  • Poor circulation that can lead to infections, ulcers or even amputations
  • Nerve damage
  • Blindness caused by retinopathy

Plus, smoking can cause insulin resistance; studies have shown that within eight weeks of stopping smoking, insulin treatments can better lower blood sugar.

Quitting smoking can be hard—and it make take several attempts before you can finally kick the habit. Fortunately, there are tons of smoking cessation tools, including nicotine patches and gum, support groups, free quitlines and even handy smartphone apps.

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Know your numbers

In addition to monitoring your blood sugar levels, those with diabetes should measure their blood pressure and cholesterol, too. Being aware of your measurements—whether they’re good or bad—can help you take the steps necessary in improving your heart health.

If you have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, adopting heart-healthy habits like maintaining a balanced diet, reducing sodium and saturated fat intake, exercising daily, managing stress and getting enough sleep can help.

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