The Cancer & Heart Health Connection

Heart disease – much like cancer – is a chronic disease that can develop over a person’s lifetime. But recently, we’re starting to see increasing rates of heart disease in younger people, which brings a renewed urgency around making positive behavior changes to best support heart health.

Heart disease is characterized by five risk factors: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and smoking. It is well known that about 80% of heart disease can be prevented with improved nutrition combined with exercise, weight management, mild alcohol intake, and smoking cessation.

Incidentally, there are many similarities between the nutritional recommendations for heart disease and cancer prevention. Here are a few tips to keep your heart healthy that also help you live a cancer-protective lifestyle:

Focus on fiber

The role that fiber plays in protecting us from chronic disease is well understood and deserving of the spotlight. Fiber comes from plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and when we consume a mostly plant-based diet, we consume more fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to help protect our cells and blood vessels from damage and regulate our cholesterol levels. Fiber also provides our gut bacteria with reliable energy to keep our immune system strong and robust, further protecting our cells and blood vessels from damage.

Eat like they do in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Diet isn’t a restrictive, fad diet – it’s a delicious way to live. Heavy on colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, healthy fats like olive oil, and seafood – eating as they do in the Mediterranean is a research-proven way to maintain heart health, lower obesity risk, and even reduce your risk of certain cancers. Recipe ideas for incorporating more Mediterranean ingredients can be as easy as this Orange Fennel & Olive Salad or a rich and aromatic Moroccan-Style Baked Chicken.

Omega-3 fats are your friend

Increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets can help to reduce inflammation in our bodies, which is a risk factor for heart disease. There are ways to add more of these healthy fats to your diet from both animal and plant sources. For example, you can try eating salmon twice a week to easily bump up the amount of healthy fats in your diet. There are also many plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including walnuts, ground flaxseeds, and avocados – all of which are also great sources of fiber.

Cut back on salt by limiting processed foods

We’re not trying to take your saltshaker away for seasoning the food you cook at home – a pinch of salt here or there is just fine. When we think of reducing salt intake, it’s better to focus on eating less processed foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 70% of our daily intake of salt comes from processed and restaurant foods. Salt is frequently added to processed foods to enhance flavor, keep you coming back for more, and sometimes as a preservative to lengthen shelf life. But, a diet that is high in salt and processed foods can lead to high blood pressure over time, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Adopting a whole foods diet pattern like the Mediterranean Diet will help to reduce your salt intake dramatically.

Keep moving

Getting regular physical activity keeps our hearts strong and healthy. Meeting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week can help protect us from heart disease. Physical activity has many health benefits beyond keeping heart disease at bay, it helps us maintain a healthy weight, lower stress, and improve our mental health. If you’re new to regular exercise and wondering how to get started, be sure to ramp up your exercise routine slowly and over time to prevent injury. And above all else, do activities that you enjoy!

Two-For-One: Eating for Heart Health & Cancer Prevention

There are many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease, the #1 killer in the U.S. Luckily, a heart-healthy diet looks and tastes just like a cancer-protective diet that’s rich in fresh fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Chicken Parmesan Crop Photo

Kate Ueland, MS, RD specializes in oncology nutrition, primarily working with breast, ovarian, renal, and melanoma cancer patients throughout all stages of the cancer journey at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) in Seattle, WA. As Cook for Your Life’s nutrition advisor and editor, Kate ensures all culinary content adheres to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and follows science-based guidelines. 

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