A two-for-one-deal is hard to pass up. Buy one lipstick, get a second one free. So what if you could apply that irresistible bit of marketing to your health? Well, you can: When you take steps to avoid diabetes, you also reduce your risk for heart disease.
That’s because the two conditions are linked. Diabetes, which is marked by excess sugar (also called glucose) in the blood, has a direct effect on heart health.
“It taxes every major organ to get rid of excess sugar,” explains health educator Tanya Abreu, the author of The Feeling Factor: Lesser Known Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease. “When there’s too much sugar in your body, every organ in your body—including your heart—gets tired. And tired organs fail.”
Factors that increase a person’s heart disease risk include high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, smoking, being overweight, not exercising, diabetes and a family history of heart disease.
“Diabetes is the most important [factor],” says Cynthia Thaik, MD, a cardiologist and the author of Your Vibrant Heart: Restoring Health, Strength & Spirit from the Body’s Core. “Having diabetes is almost always synonymous with having heart disease.”
People with diabetes have two to four times the risk for heart disease compared with people who don’t have diabetes.
But here’s a deal you can’t pass up: Maximize your health and reduce your risk for both conditions by following these three steps.
Two-for-one perk: A vegetable garden provides homegrown fiber and moderate exercise.
Eating plenty of fiber—about 30 grams per day—is one of the best ways to prevent diabetes and heart disease, says Steven Masley, MD, author of The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up. You can find fiber in vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains like brown rice, but try to get as much as you can from veggies and fruit.
“Fiber is so important—much more important than carb-protein-fat ratios,” he says. “When you eat fiber, you’re full.” And when you’re full, you eat less, making it easier to keep your calorie counts in a healthy range.
“When you eat more fiber, you nourish your arteries, which lowers your blood sugar and gives you better weight control,” Masley adds.
Plus, gardening gives you the comfort of knowing exactly where your food is coming from and helps burn extra calories every day.
Two-for-one perk: Making meals can help you control portions, sugar and salt.
Excess sugar and salt in modern diets has contributed to our risk for heart disease and diabetes. For a healthier body, reducing those additives is a good place to start.
Put simply: “Eat real food instead of something processed and enhanced with chemicals,” Masley says.
In lieu of microwave meals, prepare your own dinners. Instead of canned soup, make your own using fresh vegetables. Strive to fill at least half your plate with vegetables. Then, add a lean protein like fish or chicken, or a whole grain like quinoa or rice.
But, Masley says, beware of refined grains, which essentially are hidden sugars. That’s anything made with white flour, which has been milled to remove grain kernels’ bran and germ—white bread, white rice, pretzels, crackers, cookies, breakfast cereals and so on.
And make dining out a treat. At restaurants, portions are large and you’re unable to track exactly what’s in your food.
Two-for-one perk: Exercise improves heart function and lowers blood sugar levels.
“Your arteries are muscles,” Masley says. “Exercise causes arteries to pump and get elastic.” And that’s good, because rigid, narrow arteries make it harder for blood to travel through the body, which strains the heart.
Exercise can also lower blood sugar levels. In fact, a recent study suggests exercise may be as effective as drug therapy on heart disease and diabetes—a powerful reminder that we need to move more.
The federal government recommends that adults exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but only a third of American adults do so. That lack of exercise contributes to obesity, a major risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.
But, Masley advises, be cautious of just clocking minutes.
“Time isn’t it. The goal is to get fit,” he says. “You have to rev up your heart rate.”
Fitness requires that you push yourself. Light strolls or stationary bike rides with zero resistance aren’t workouts. Instead, with a doctor’s go-ahead, walk briskly, run, hike, dance or take an aerobics class.
Experts acknowledge genetics play a role in our health. The traits you inherit from your parents help determine your overall health—but only about 10 percent of it. The rest is up to you.
“We have a ton of choice. We can be trim, fit, sexy, sharp and in wonderful health,” Masley says. “It’s not your genes that determine that. It’s your lifestyle. How we live is so powerful today.”
Read more about Diabetes Education at Northside.