Help beat diabetes with heart-healthy food: Here’s your new menu

Designed to tackle high blood pressure, the DASH diet also works to help manage diabetes, reverse prediabetes and keep your weight in line

Joy Manning
Bowl of vegetable soup with whole wheat bread on the side.

Making healthy food choices isn’t always easy. Add diabetes or prediabetes to the mix and it’s a downright challenge. That’s because what you eat is going to impact your blood sugar. And that in turn impacts your overall health.

After all, diabetes doesn’t just affect your blood sugar — it impacts your whole body. Including your heart. People with diabetes are almost twice as likely to die from a heart attack or stroke as people who don’t have diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

But here’s a secret that diabetes educators want to let you in on: Eating to help beat diabetes can actually be quite simple. Things like carb counting and being on high alert for sugar — both natural and added — often turns meal time into a confusing scenario. Here’s the message that needs to be heard: Follow a well-balanced eating plan.

Enter the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet. It was designed nearly 25 years ago by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to bring down high blood pressure without medication. And research shows it’s very effective.

Yet even though the U.S. News and World Report’s panel of health experts has consistently rated DASH as one of the top (if not the top) eating plans to help people hit different health goals — including weight loss — the DASH diet often flies under the radar.

“That’s because it’s so sensible,” says Karen Graham, R.D., a certified diabetes educator and cookbook author.

There’s nothing flashy about this way of eating — it aligns closely with the USDA dietary recommendations. You might think of it as basic healthy eating habits: Lots of produce and plenty of whole grains.

Dairy, meat, fish and oil? All allowed. Even treats like the occasional small plate of ribs or a small dish of ice cream can fit into this plan. Simply put, there are no banned foods or food groups, but you do learn to eat in moderation.

A healthy lady on a walk
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be hard

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How DASH helps with diabetes management

As mentioned above, diabetes and heart health are closely linked. “Two out of three people with diabetes have high blood pressure, and that increases the risk of stroke as well as kidney problems,” says Amy Campbell, R.D., a certified diabetes care and education specialist and author.

Campbell says the DASH diet came to her attention as a way to help people with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, cut their risk of heart disease. As people with diabetes started eating the DASH way to prevent or treat high blood pressure, their health care teams noticed they were gaining many other benefits at the same time.

“We saw insulin resistance and A1C levels improve,” says Campbell. A1C is a measurement of your average blood sugar levels over the course of 3 months. Insulin resistance means your body can’t respond to or use the insulin it produces, and it’s tied to high blood pressure and weight gain.

“Also, people lost weight. It’s not a weight loss diet but people who follow it just eat better. It’s a multi-benefit eating plan,” says Campbell.

You can reverse prediabetes with DASH

If your health care provider has told you that you have prediabetes, that’s an even bigger reason to consider the DASH diet. “People often don’t make healthy lifestyle changes until their doctor tells them they have full-blown diabetes,” says Graham.

That’s a missed opportunity. “Prediabetes is a very important window of time,” says Graham. “If you make changes to how you’re eating and exercising during this time, there’s a very good chance you can prevent diabetes and in some cases even reverse prediabetes. After you’ve progressed to full-blown diabetes, it’s much, much harder.”

The potential benefits are so great that even the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends DASH. Plus, the ADA notes that DASH has been shown in studies to improve insulin resistance and curb weight gain.

“What’s really great about DASH is that it works for anyone — you don’t have to have diabetes or heart disease to benefit from DASH,” says Campbell.

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The nitty gritty of DASH

So, how exactly do you follow this plan and what foods will you be eating? It starts with you choosing a daily calorie target based on your age and activity level. Then you’ll know how many servings of each food category to eat per day or week.

Women over the age of 51 who walk between 1.5 and 3 miles a day (or are otherwise moderately active) need around 1,800 calories a day, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Men over 51 who are walking daily need between 2,200 and 2,400 calories a day. Trim back 200 calories if you’re not as active.

Using 1,800 daily calories as an example, you’ll want to aim for the following each day:

  • 4 to 5 servings of vegetables (1 serving = 1 cup raw leafy vegetables; ½ cup cooked or raw; ½ cup vegetable juice)
  • 6 servings of mostly whole grains (1 serving = ½ cup cooked pasta, rice or oatmeal; 1 slice bread; 1 ounce dry cereal)
  • 4 to 5 servings of fruit (1 serving = 1 medium whole fruit; ½ cup cubed fruit or small berries; ¼ cup dried fruit)
  • 2 to 3 servings of nonfat or low-fat dairy products (1 serving = 1 cup milk or yogurt; 1 ½ ounces of cheese)
  • 6 ounces or less of lean meats, poultry, fish and eggs (1 serving = 1 ounce cooked; 1 egg)
  • 2 to 3 servings of fats and oils (1 serving = 1 tsp olive or vegetable oil; 1 Tbsp mayonnaise or regular salad dressing)

A good goal for nuts, legumes and/or seeds is 4 to 5 servings each week — although having a serving every day is fine. One serving in this group includes: ½ cup cooked legumes (such as peas or beans); 2 Tbsp peanut or other nut butter; 1/3 cup or 1 ½ ounces nuts; 2 Tbsp or 2 ounces seeds.

As for the fun foods, limit your sweets to 5 per week or less. And keep in mind that a serving size for treats like ice cream is ½ cup — not a big dish.

An important part of DASH is limiting your sodium — no more than 2,300 milligrams a day. That’s a little less than 1 teaspoon of salt, but it’s not as hard as it may sound. “When you start cutting out processed foods, you’ll automatically cut out salt,” says Graham.

She adds that rinsing canned foods, such as kidney beans, will remove up to 30% of the sodium. More than 70% of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from processed foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When you minimize processed and packaged foods, that 2,300 milligrams goes a long way, according to Graham. “You can feel free to use a little salt on your fresh tomatoes or chicken breast,” she says.

3 days on DASH

When you’re following the DASH plan, your daily diet may not be as different as you might expect. Once you minimize processed foods, saturated fats and sweets, there’s plenty of flexibility within DASH to accommodate your cultural food traditions and preferences.

Both Graham and Campbell stress that whether you have high blood pressure, prediabetes, diabetes or no diabetes, the way you approach DASH will be exactly the same. The specific things you eat and portion sizes should be personalized to your goals and lifestyle.

Here’s just one example of how a few days on DASH might look:

Breakfast: Unsweetened oatmeal with cinnamon, banana, sliced nuts and low-fat milk 

Snack: Small handful of nuts with orange slices 

Lunch: Baby spinach salad with chickpeas, apple slices and vinaigrette  

Snack: Low-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt with fresh berries 

Dinner: Baked cod, brown rice, steamed green beans and celery sticks 

 

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, cucumber slices and a slice of low-fat cheese on a whole-wheat English muffin  

Snack: Graham cracker square with nut butter 

Lunch: Black beans tossed with quinoa and corn; top with low-sodium salsa; serve with fresh fruit  

Snack: Carrot sticks and whole grain crackers with hummus or guacamole 

Dinner: Baked chicken breast sprinkled with curry powder; serve with steamed cauliflower and pea pods, and whole-wheat flatbread 

 

Breakfast: Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and a sliced apple 

Snack: Fresh fruit and a piece of cheese 

Lunch: Greek salad with romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and fresh oregano; serve with baked pita chips 

Snack: Air-popped popcorn with a drizzle of olive oil 

Dinner: Stir-fry with snap peas, broccoli, carrots, and firm tofu, chicken or lean beef 

Dessert: Fresh fruit and a small serving of ice cream 

Find a DASH-friendly new recipe

Renew’s recipe library includes dozens of delicious meal ideas. To start browsing, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then find Recipe Library in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here

Ready to give DASH a try? Here’s Graham’s suggested grocery list:

Kitchen staples:

  • Brown rice
  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Canned beans
  • Unsalted nuts
  • Canned tuna
  • Popcorn kernels (not microwave)
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Canned tomatoes

Fresh foods:

  • Low-fat milk or yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Chicken breast
  • Cod
  • Salad greens
  • Ice cream (small container)

These meal examples and shopping list are just that: examples. It’s a starting point. There are many ways to put a DASH eating plan together. Because there are no banned foods, you can customize the program to work for you without giving up your favorite dishes.

According to Graham and Campbell, you can up your odds of success on DASH — especially if you want to use it to manage or reverse diabetes — by working with a registered dietician (RD) who is also a certified diabetes educator (CDE). Your provider will be able recommend one.

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