Skills to Master for Diabetes and Heart Health

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on September 09, 2021

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor may have mentioned that you’re at a higher risk for heart disease.  If that idea sounds overwhelming, keep this in mind: Research shows that making an effort to control your diabetes today can help prevent heart problems and other complications down the road.

No one is born knowing how to manage diabetes, though. It takes time to learn the specific skills that will help you improve your health. With enough practice, you’ll become a pro. Here are a few to focus on.

Know how to test your blood sugar. Controlling your blood sugar goes a long way toward keeping heart problems and other diabetes complications at bay. So you’ll want to regularly check your levels. When your blood sugar is too high, you can make adjustments to your diet, lifestyle, medication, or all of the above.  

You’ll use a small electronic device called a glucometer. Wash and dry your hands, put a test strip into the device, and prick your finger with the needle that comes with your test kit. Touch and hold the blood on the test strip. Some meters will help you keep a digital record of your results, but you can also jot them down on paper.

Ask your doctor how often you should check your blood sugar. Unless they say otherwise, your levels should be between 80 and 130 mg/dL before meals and less than 180 mg/dL 2 hours after a meal.         

Master your medication. If you take medicines for your diabetes, it’s important to understand how they work and the side effects you can expect. If you use insulin to manage your diabetes, make sure you understand how to figure out how much you need in different situations. If you’re having trouble, talk to your doctor. They can help you, or pair you with a diabetes educator who can work with you to get the right dose every time.

Track your carbs. Carbohydrates affect your blood sugar more than protein or fat. Tracking them can help you make sure you’re not eating too many -- and, in the long run, help you take care of your heart.

When blood sugar is high for a long time, it can damage the nerves and muscle tissue that keep your heart working. It can also raise your levels of inflammation, as well as cholesterol and blood fats called triglycerides. All of those can lead to heart disease.

A nutritionist or diabetes educator can help you learn how to count your carbs. Often, it means paying attention to portion sizes, checking food labels, and learning how to account for fresh foods that don’t have a label. Your diabetes care team can also help you understand the right amount of carbs you should aim for each day, since it’s different for everyone.

Trying to stick to a healthy diet or lose weight? Try writing down all the food you eat as well as the number of carbs. Research shows that people who keep a simple food diary eat healthier and have an easier time shedding pounds than those who skip this step.         

Know good from bad carbs. Tracking carbs is important, but remember that all carbs aren’t equal. Refined or “simple” carbs like white bread, cookies, and potato chips are short on nutrients and have little to no fiber. These carbs really boost your blood sugar and contribute to weight gain.

But complex carbs, like vegetables and whole-grain bread, have fiber, and your body breaks them down more slowly. That leads to a steadier stream of blood sugar. They’re also rich in nutrients and are often lower in calories. That’s why choosing them over simple carbs makes you less likely to be obese or have high cholesterol and blood pressure. Whenever possible, choose vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and nuts -- and when you eat bread, pasta, or rice, make sure it’s labeled “100% whole grain. “

Conquer your calendar. When you have diabetes, daily exercise is a must for managing your blood sugar and keeping your heart in good shape. And one of the easiest ways to make sure it’s a daily habit is by scheduling it like you would any other important appointment. You’ll want to coordinate your workouts with your meals and medication. Talk to your doctor about the best time of day for you to exercise.

Another thing to mark on your calendar: regular checkups with your doctor. In addition to an annual appointment, book a visit any time you think you may need to adjust your insulin or other medications, are having trouble managing your blood sugar, or notice new health problems related to your heart or blood sugar.

Plan your meals. Deciding what you’ll eat before you eat it is a simple but super-effective way to improve your diet, research shows. You can make a plan at the beginning of each day -- or even better, take a few minutes before you go grocery shopping -- to plan out your meals for each week. While a healthy diet can include the occasional restaurant meal, make it a point to cook as much as possible. Research shows that people who have at least five home-cooked meals a week eat more fruits and vegetables, get more nutrients, and are less likely to be overweight compared to people who dine out more often. That’s a winning combination for your blood sugar and your heart.

Learn to spot -- and squash -- stress as soon as it hits. Stress can raise your blood sugar. It can also lead to sleep problems and steer you toward heart- and health-harming behaviors, like overeating, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol. It may even discourage you from sticking to your diabetes management plan.

There’s no way to completely ban stressful situations from your life, so be on the lookout for telltale signs that stress is piling up -- for example, anxious thoughts, a racing heart, or leaning into less-than-healthy behaviors like drinking alcohol. (Keeping a journal can boost your self-awareness.) Think about ways you can change your reaction to stressful situations.

As soon as you realize your stress levels are rising, use a stress-busting technique. Deep breathing, meditation, going for a walk, and talking to a friend are some smart ways to tame tension. If you’re having trouble finding a strategy that works, see a mental health professional, like a social worker or psychologist. They can teach you new skills for managing tough emotions and staying on top of stress. 

WebMD Medical Reference



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