Heart Healthy Food Choices During Cancer Treatment
When was the last time you thought about your heart? Did you know that some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy (especially with anthracyclines) and radiation to the chest, are risk factors for heart problems? For example, a study showed that “within five years of diagnosis people treated for lymphoma or breast cancer were three times as likely to develop heart failure as people who never had cancer.” In some lymphoma survivors, including children, who received specific chemotherapy regimens and/or radiation treatments to the chest, “the majority of the excess cardiac risk is not realized until 10 years after exposure, and the risk remains significantly elevated for at least 25 years.” Regardless of the type of cancer treatment you received, there are things you can do to help manage your risk of heart disease. Take charge of your heart health by following these ABCs.
Add more plants to your menus. Plant-forward meals and snacks slow down the absorption of dietary fats and added sugars into your blood stream. This helps protect the heart. Plants also provide phytonutrients which reduce inflammation, a condition that can damage the heart and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fill at least 75% of your plate with fruits, veggies, and grains (especially whole grains). Fill the remaining 25% of your plate with lean proteins, either plant-based or lean animal sources. Go meatless at meals three or more times a week. Use plant proteins such as dried beans, lentils, hummus, seitan, soybeans, tofu, seeds or nuts.
Boost your heart strength with foods choices that support healthy blood pressure, such as fish, potassium-rich foods, low-fat dairy, and low-sodium foods. Those food choices are part of the DASH diet. DASH stands for the “Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension.” The DASH diet is also healthy to follow during and after cancer treatment. To learn more, view A Week With the DASH Eating Plan from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). You can also try using a heart healthy grocery list like this one from The Foundation of the National Lipid Association.
Choose healthy sources of fat and avoid trans-fat and saturated fat. Healthy fats are heart protective. Healthy sources of fat include most liquid plant oils, such as canola, corn, olive, safflower, soybean and sunflower oil. Studies show that replacing butter and animal fat with these healthy plant-based oils can lower bad cholesterol (i.e. LDL-cholesterol) and the risk of heart disease. (Measure your oil/fats with a teaspoon.) Other healthy fats include walnuts, peanuts, seeds, fatty fish and avocados.
Avoid trans-fat and saturated fat. Packaged snack foods, margarine, shortening, and fried foods are all sources of trans fat. Red meat, butter, whole-fat dairy, lard and tropical oils (coconut and palm oil) are sources of saturated fat. Choose products with less than 2 grams of saturated fats per serving. You can find this information on the Nutrition Facts label. For help reading Nutrition Facts labels, click here.
Discuss your heart health and risks with your healthcare team. How are your heart-related numbers such as weight, blood pressure, complete cholesterol test (lipid panel), and heart rate (while resting and exercising)? Does your doctor recommend a cardiac screening or consultation for you? Be your own best heart health advocate.
Keeping your heart heathy is an important step in enjoying life after cancer treatments. Recall the ABCs as you choose your meals and snacks. Find more tools on our website and at these other resources.
EatRight.org: Heart-Healthy Eating Tips
National Institutes of Health (NIH): A Week With the Dash Eating Plan
Foundation of the National Lipid Association: Shopping List for Heart Healthy Eating on a Budget
American Heart Association: 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health
 Gilmore A and Oldham K, eds. Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice, 2nd ed. Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group; 2021: 292.