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February 28, 2017 | 4 minute read

How to eat for heart-health and cancer prevention

Q: I’m following a heart-healthy diet. How can I adapt that for cancer prevention?

A: Eating for heart health and cancer prevention aren’t as different as you may think. We used to think about heart disease and cancer as having separate risk factors, but now we know that just as tobacco increases risk of both, eating and physical activity habits also affect risk of both.

Research now shows that heart health means much more than cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It involves the whole environment within blood vessels. By avoiding elevated insulin levels and excess inflammation, you can promote heart health and bypass key drivers of cancer development.

Limiting saturated fat is part of heart-healthy eating. But what you eat instead matters – both for heart health and cancer risk!

Focus your eating around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts. Their nutrients, natural plant compounds (phytochemicals) and dietary fiber work together to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, and prevent or repair damage to cells that can lead to cancer. These plant foods will also help you fill up without excess calories.

Look Beyond Fat Content. Focusing only on fat content can get you off track when it comes to meat choices. Even though some cuts of red meat are lean, overdoing on red meat increases risk of colorectal cancer. The risk seems related to other components of meat, such as the form of iron it provides or its effect on gut bacteria.

Emerging evidence suggests that too much red meat may not be heart-healthy either, so following AICR’s recommendation for no more than 18 ounces a week may be protective on both fronts.

Limit, Avoid Processed Meats. Recommendations for heart health and cancer prevention emphasize strongly limiting processed meats. Even when they’re lean, high sodium is not blood pressure-friendly, and compounds formed in smoked meats and from added preservatives increase risk of colorectal and stomach cancers.

Cut the Excess Calories. Limit how often you have foods or beverages that are low in nutrients and high in sugar, since calories can add up quickly, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight. Big loads of sugar (especially easy to get in sugar-sweetened drinks) can raise heart risk factors even outside of weight gain.

And no matter how healthy the food, eat portions that help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. Excess body fat, especially around the waist, can lead to inflammation and elevated insulin levels that lay the groundwork for heart disease and cancer.

Keep Your Alcohol Moderate, If You Drink. Moderate alcohol — up to one standard drink a day for women, or up to two for men — is associated with lower risk of heart disease. A standard drink means 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine, for example. Alcohol beyond moderate amounts link to high blood pressure and increased heart disease risk.

Yet alcohol metabolizes into a compound that can cause cancer, and alcohol affects cancer-related hormones in women. For cancer prevention, it’s important to stick with the limits of moderation. Especially with breast cancer, any amount increases risk to some degree. So drinking even less is better.

Find Smart Swaps. A plant-based diet is the bottom-line for eating habits that promote heart health and lower cancer risk. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Avoid excess sugar and calories by using unsweetened fruit as a topping on unsweetened yogurt or a modest portion of cereal, adding sweet flavor and filling power.
  • As an alternative to sugary drinks, choose seltzer flavored with fruit essence, or add slices of fruit to club soda.
  • Replace red meat in a couple meals each week with fish or seafood, and add a few more meatless meals, making sure that you include beans, lentils or some other source of protein.

Whether you limit portions of meat or avoid it, you make room for the vegetables, fruits, whole grain and beans that provide a bevy of ways to promote healthy blood vessels and cancer prevention.

AICR HealthTalk is a monthly blog post by Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN.


Karen is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor, a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes® and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD.

4 comments on “How to eat for heart-health and cancer prevention

  1. Orest Romanish on

    You say above, “Limiting saturated fat is part of heart-healthy eating. But what you eat instead matters – both for heart health and cancer risk!” I have read a number of articles saying that saturated fat is NOT the demon that it has been thought to be: that butter is superior to margarine; higher-fat yogurt (and milk) is superior to 0% yogurt (and milk) and, in fact people should avoid 0% fat anything when a higher-fat alternative is available; meat is not as bad for you as has been proclaimed for the last few decades; that the previous studies slamming dietary fat were biased and flawed.
    So, what gives?

    • Karen Collins on

      It’s true that questions have been raised about whether limiting foods high in saturated fat is helpful to lower heart disease risk, and it can be hard to make sense of all the contradictory headlines.
      Studies in which reducing saturated fat did not show health benefits often grouped together all people who ate less saturated fat, regardless of what they ate instead. Years ago, eating less saturated fat almost always meant eating more vegetables and fruits, for example. Today, you can also eat less saturated fat by eating more fat-free cookies and ice cream, and filling up on refined grain pasta, bread and bagels. I don’t find it surprising that choices like those don’t protect health!
      Analyzed separately, reducing saturated fat by replacing it with particular types of margarine high in trans fat, or with refined grains and added sugars, shows no health benefit. But when researchers separate people who eat less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat and/or whole grains, we see health benefits [example: http://www.onlinejacc.org/content/66/14/1538 ].
      Although emerging evidence suggests fat from milk, cheese and yogurt may not pose as much risk as that from meats, replacing dairy fat with unsaturated vegetable fats or whole grains is linked with even lower risk of heart disease [see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27557656 ]. From the perspective of cancer, milk products in moderation don’t pose risk regardless of fat content. However, when it comes to red meat, and especially processed meats (like bacon and sausage), saturated fat is just one of the components they contain that studies tie to risk of heart disease and cancer.
      Research is still ongoing. While we await more answers, I think the approach I described here helps us target choices that promote overall good health, including lower risk of heart disease and cancer.

  2. Heart Health on

    Fantastic article as well as great guidance about cardiovascular health. It is true which Eating the varied diet plan of well balanced meals can help together with your weight, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Thanks for spreading valuable details about a good coronary heart health.

  3. Naeem on

    Great valuable information! You have covered everything on healthy diet that everyone should know about it. I’ve subscribed to your email list so whenever you publish a new article, I will keep aware of that. Keep sharing such good stuff!.


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