To avoid cancer, be heart-healthy. That's the finding of a new study out of Harvard. The benefits of eating a mostly plant-based diet for heart health are well known, as Dr. Joel Kahn, the author and cardiologist recently told The Beet. Now, new research shows the “double benefits” of this heart-healthy lifestyle: It also lowers your lifetime risk of cancer.

Living a heart-healthy lifestyle is linked to not only a lower risk of heart disease (including stroke) but also a lower risk of ever developing cancer, the study found. While the authors didn’t specifically call out a plant-based diet in their conclusions, another recent Harvard study found that adhering to a whole food plant-based diet was linked with a lower risk of stroke. For heart health, and to prevent cancer, eating well—along with daily exercise, and losing weight if needed, as well as not smoking are the key components of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Cardiovascular Disease Risk May Indicate Cancer Risk

“We found an association between a heart-healthy lifestyle and a lower risk of cancer, and the opposite is true: that a less heart-healthy lifestyle is also associated with a higher risk of cancer, but we can’t prove that there is causation in this epidemiologic study,” says Emily S. Lau, MD, from the division of Cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in a press release.

The study, which was published in JACC: CardioOncology, looked at data from more than 20,000 participants in two large community-based, long-term health studies, the Framingham Heart Study and the Prevention of Renal and Vascular End-Stage Disease (PREVEND) study. The researchers found that traditional risk factors for heart disease such as age, sex, and smoking status were each associated with cancer, and certain “markers of stress on the heart” like naturally occurring substances called natriuretic peptides could increase your cancer risk by up to 40 percent.

Nutritionist Becca McVicker, MS, RD, LD, who isn’t associated with the research, further elaborated on the promising findings: “This study shows that factors we use in assessing cardiovascular disease risk may also be helpful in assessing cancer risk,” she told The Beet. “This is important because we know in many cases, catching a cancer diagnosis early improves your outcome, and knowing a person’s cancer risk can help us screen those who need it most,” she continues, noting that this study looks at correlation and not causation. “Lifestyle factors impact both cardiovascular health and cancer risk." She adds" It's important to note that this doesn’t show that having heart disease in itself will lead to cancer.”

Woman hands eating vegan salad of baked vegetables, avocado, tofu and buckwheat buddha bowl, top view. Plant based food concept.
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A Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet is Heart Healthy

Overall, these findings are encouraging to those who are plant-based or are looking to add more plant foods into their diet, since the results indicate having a low risk for cardiovascular disease may also put you lower on the cancer risk totem pole, as well. This all builds on an increasingly large body of evidence that eating plant-based can do so much for your health. “We know that a plant-based diet can improve cardiovascular health by lowering LDL. This works both because of a decrease in saturated fat, and an increase in fiber that usually comes with it,” says McVicker.

“Separately, we do know that lower intake of certain meats (a.k.a. eating more plant-based) can lower risk of specific types of cancer,” she continues pointing to both this study on the role of certain components of a plant-based diet in the management of elevated cholesterol and the impact of cardiovascular risk and another study on a whole-food, plant-based diet for obesity, ischemic heart disease, or diabetes.

The Green Mediterranean Diet Is the New Goal

If you’re looking to protect your ticker, there’s perhaps no better diet than eating plant-based. In fact, prominent cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn recently told The Beet that a "90-percent-plus whole food, plant-based, brightly-colored, largely organic diet, with a lot of spice and superfoods” is optimal for cardiovascular health. Some people are now calling the Green Mediterranean Diet the new gold standard since studies have shown that this whole food plant-based approach is even healthier. The goal is to move further toward plant-based eating, with protein coming from plants and legumes rather than fish or dairy. Science agrees that plant-based is the way to go, with an ever-growing body of research showing the incredible benefits of eating plant-based for your heart health

As health and wellness continue to come to the forefront during these trying times amid the coronavirus pandemic, we’ll take it as another sign that we can take control of our health — and load up on the kale and quinoa.

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