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  • Joanna Injore

How to Build your Healthy Heart Diet after Cancer

Why do you need to look after your heart after cancer treatment?

Keeping your heart healthy is important for everyone but cancer survivors in particular, can experience heart problems during or after cancer treatment. For example, some hormone treatments for breast cancer such as anastrozole and letrozole can increase the ‘unhealthy’ LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol level in your blood. So how can you reduce your risk? Below are my 10 steps to building your healthy heart diet to reduce your risk of heart disease

Here are you 10 steps to building your healthy heart diet

1. Aim for your 5 portions of fruit and veggies!

I know we hear this all the time, but it is really important to aim for your 5 a day every day! This is easier than you think. All types count; tinned, frozen, fresh or dried. Try to include some fruits or vegetables throughout the day- for every meal or snack ask yourself can I add some veg to this meal? For example add a few berries on your cereal, handful of spinach or mushrooms in your omelette, some dried fruit as a snack and 2-3 portions of veg with your evening meal.

5 a day, how to eat 5 a day

2. Include fish in your diet

If you eat fish it is a good idea to include 2 portions a week (140g). Oily fish in particular contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (read more about omega-3 here) which are thought to have a positive effect on heart health. Types of oily fish include salmon, sardines, pilchards, trout, mackerel, herrings, kippers, tuna. White fish will also contain smaller amounts of omega-3 and other important nutrients too.

omega-3 fish

If you don’t eat fish it is a good idea to include plant-based sources such as flaxseeds, walnuts, green leafy veg, soya or foods fortified with omega-3 (e.g. eggs, margarine)

3. Reduce your salt intake

If you have too much salt in your diet this can increase your blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease. We should only be consuming 6g of salt a day which is only 1 tiny teaspoon. It's easy to consume too much salt as it’s often added to foods e.g. cereals, crisps, soups, ready meals, biscuits so try not to add salt during or after cooking. Try adding herbs or other spices to give flavour instead of salt.

This handy guide from the BDA is useful when checking the salt content of different foods. Try to choose foods from the low or medium list most of the time

4. Increase your fibre foods

Adding wholegrains, wholemeal or brown cereals, pasta, rice and bread in your diet will provide more fibre, in addition to fibre from your fruit and vegetables. These foods are linked with lower risk of heart disease and also have the benefit of keeping your feel fuller for longer.

5. Choose healthy fats

Saturated fats have been linked to higher amounts of LDL cholesterol so it is a good idea to limit these. These fats are found in processed foods (e.g. cakes, biscuits, sausages, butter, meat full fat dairy products) so try to limit these or cut off visible fat from meat and choose low fat dairy products. Better fats to choose are polyunsaturates which are found in sunflower and rapeseed oil, nuts and seeds or monounsaturated fats which is found in olive oil, avocados and almonds, pecans and walnuts.

healthy fats

6. Include some plant protein in your diet

Try to include some beans, pulses, peas or soya products into your diets. These plant proteins tend to be lower in fat and high in fibre which can lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol.

7. Limit your alcohol intake

Keep to the weekly alcohol limits of 14 units a week and try to have alcohol free days. Alcohol is quite energy dense so drinking less may help to keep your weight stable and drinking too much can cause high blood pressure (more advice here)

8. Get active!

Being active helps to keep your weight stable and improve your cholesterol levels. Start slowly with the aim to reduce your time sitting during the day. Remember all movement counts; housework, gardening, walking, jogging, yoga etc, just keep moving!

9. Avoid smoking and keep to a healthy weight

Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and stopping will decrease your risk significantly, you can get further help with this here)

Keeping your weight stable can be a challenge after cancer treatment. Chemo, fatigue and pain can influence your appetite and lead to changes in your weight. If you have finished your active cancer treatment following a healthy diet and being active will help to keep your weight stable. I work with a lot of clients in this area, supporting them to make small sustainable changes one step at a time.

10. Other foods to try: Soya, nuts, oats and plant stanols!

Other products such as soya, nuts, oats and plant stanols can improve your cholesterol levels once you have tried the above.

Soya and nuts

Soya products and nuts are naturally high in unsaturated fats (the heathy fat) so a good alternative source of protein to animal based foods.

Oats and barley

Oat and barley products such as porridge, oat cakes, pearl barley contain a fibre called beta-glucan which can help lower cholesterol levels.

Plant stanols

Plant sterols or stanols are found naturally in vegetable oils, seeds, nuts and cereals and have a similar structure to cholesterol. When these are eaten they are absorbed in the gut which allows more LDL cholesterol to be excreted out (in your stools) so lowers your blood cholesterol. There are a number of products available to try such yoghurts, drinks, margarine, cereal bars which has plant sterols/stanols. Eating 1.5-3g a day can lower your cholesterol by 7-10% in 2-3 weeks but the effect only lasts whilst you are taking the product. Remember they do need to be taken with a meal to work!

If you want to get started building your healthy heart diet and focusing on your needs after cancer treatment; book your free call today

Further information

The BDA Heart Heart fact sheet:

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