How Different is Eating for Cancer Prevention and Heart Health?

In February we observe both Cancer Prevention Month and American Heart Month!  Why take an entire month to shine a light so brightly on these two chronic diseases?  I’ll give my 3 top reasons:

  1. Mortality (read: death) rates associated with each.  According to the CDC, cancer death rates for adults aged 45–64 declined by 19% from 1999 to 2017; heart disease death rates declined by 22% from 1999 to 2011 and then increased 4% from 2011 to 2017. (No difference in these rates is seen between men and women.) Still, each year in the US, we see 182.6 and 133.6 deaths per 100,000 individuals for cancer and heart disease, respectively.  These two health conditions continue to occupy the top 2 spots for causes of deaths in our country. 
  2. Health care savings.  A recent study demonstrated the potential savings if people were actually following nutrition recommendations. (Currently, Americans get a grade of 59% when it comes to adhering to the recommended healthy dietary pattern). If diet quality were to improve by 20%, cost savings would be in the ballpark of $31.5 billion—largely a byproduct of disease reduction.   
  3. Consumer knowledge.  In the 2019 International Food Information Council Food and Health Survey, 40% of those queried said they had made dietary changes in order to avoid future adverse health issues.  But, do they have the right information to do this?  An American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) study, just out, showed not even half of Americans recognize the clear link between their lifestyle—specifically alcohol consumption; diets high in red meat and low in produce and fiber; physical activity—and cancer development. 

As an RD, one of the most frequent (and exasperated) comments I hear is about how “THE RECOMMENDATIONS KEEP CHANGING!”  It’s clear that our communications environment makes it all too easy for those without credible expertise to position themselves on equal ground as actual experts (if you need proof of this assertion, check out the next Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee meeting webinar and read the play-by-play observer chat). That, and our 24-hour “news” cycle can make it appear that advice is rapidly changing.  However, the reality is that, when you look at dietary recommendations over time, they are remarkably consistent and can be boiled down to the following:  more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean and plant-based protein, and low-fat dairy combined with less sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars. 

I beat this drum often, but most healthy eating principles apply across the board.  Where they differ are when we drill down into preventing and/or managing specific health conditions.  Here’s an example of the similarities and differences between eating to prevent cardiovascular issues and cancer:

  • Convergence. For individuals looking to prevent heart disease and cancer, we recommend diets high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and limited in “fast food” and sugary drinks.  A big misconception is that sugar “feeds” cancer.  The recommendation to limit added sugars is related to preventing overweight and obesity and achieving nutrient adequacy, within individual calorie requirements.  Healthy weight management and physical activity are consistent recommendations across the board. 
  • Nuanced Differences. 
    • Alcohol
      • For cancer prevention…any amount of alcohol is considered carcinogenic and should be limited. 
      • For heart health…up to one serving/day for women and two for men can be protective.
    • Red and processed meats
      • For cancer prevention…red and processed meats have been highly correlated to cancer risk, particularly colorectal.  Red meat should be limited to 12-18 oz/week and processed meats should be limited overall. 
      • For heart health…the focus is on types of meats and what is in them (low in saturated fat and sodium).
    • Sodium
      • For cancer prevention…sodium is not a huge player.  However, eating more potassium can offset sodium’s effect on blood pressure, which is a win-win!
      • For heart health…excess sodium is associated with increases in blood pressure. 
    • Dietary Fats
      • For heart health…the dietary fat recommendations are just more specific.  Individuals should strive to replace saturated fat in the diet, when possible, with unsaturated fats.

Cancer Prevention Month resources.  Shameless plug not because I have worked with AICR (which I have), but because I all-around love what they do! Whether you are a health professional, health aficionado, or a general person who wants to learn more, the AICR is a go-to for science-based information and resources.  Here are some recommended links:   

For professionals—

For consumers—

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