Updated 21 July 2014

Reduce heart disease, cancer risk

Before the menopause, women are protected against certain diseases of lifestyle. But once their bodies stop producing hormones, the risk increases. Dietary changes can help.


Before the menopause, women are protected against a number of so-called diseases of lifestyle such as coronary heart disease (CHD) and cancer, but once their bodies stop producing hormones, the incidence of these diseases in older women increases alarmingly. New research indicates that making certain dietary and lifestyle changes can radically reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer in postmenopausal women.

Heart disease and stroke

In the USA, CHD and stroke kill half a million women aged 45 and older, each year. The idea that heart disease is a male problem is, therefore, incorrect.

The following lifestyle changes can help to prevent CHD and stroke in older women:

Dietary changes:

  • reduce the total amount of fat you eat, especially of saturated fat and cholesterol which is mainly found in meat, eggs, and full cream dairy products
  • replace saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils (canola, avocado, sunflower, olive oil, and soft or tub margarines with a high polyunsaturated/ mono-unsaturated fatty acid content)
  • avoid foods containing trans-fatty acids (hard or block margarine, commercial cakes, biscuits and pies)
  • eat plenty of fish 2-3 times a week to increase your Omega-3 fatty acid intake
  • eat Omega-3 enriched eggs (four times a week)
  • eat foods rich in protective antioxidants (fresh fruit and vegetables)
  • eat foods rich in dietary fibre (fresh, raw fruits and vegetables and unprocessed grains and cereals)
  • take a vitamin E supplement
  • make sure you are getting sufficient B vitamins, esp. folate, B6 and B12 which protect against heart disease - take a B complex supplement if necessary
  • eat soy products which contain isoflavones which lower blood cholesterol levels
  • cut down on sodium intake by using less table salt and processed foods (check sodium content on labels)
  • eat low-fat or skimmed milk and dairy products to boost calcium and potassium intake to combat high blood pressure


The second most common cause of death and disability in older women is cancer, with lung and breast cancers topping the list.

Lung cancer

The most important lifestyle change which will prevent lung cancer, is stopping smoking.

Dietary changes:

Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to increase intakes of carotenoids, flavonoids and phytochemicals which protect the body against lung cancer.

Breast cancer

The second most common cause of death due to cancer in women living in western societies is breast cancer. Remember that breastfeeding has a protective effect.

The following dietary changes are recommended:

  • Reduce fat intake - research shows that a high total fat intake may increase oestrogen levels in the body which promote the risk of developing breast cancer
  • Increase intakes of foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (fish, flax seed oil and Omega-3 enriched eggs)
  • There is some scientific evidence that older and postmenopausal women should eat plant foods to obtain phytochemicals, especially soya products which contain genistein, a phyto-oestrogen which has anticarcinogenic properties.
  • WARNING: The use of dietary soy supplements by women who suffer from breast cancer, or are taking tamoxifen, is not recommended by the American Dietetic Association.
  • Eat a high-fibre diet (fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed cereals and grains)
  • If you are overweight, try to lose weight and increase exercise levels
  • Cut down on alcohol intake - excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

These examples of illnesses that target older women, and the dietary recommendations which can help to prevent such diseases, can be summarised as follows:

Eat a balanced low-fat diet, stock up on fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, eat unprocessed or whole grains and cereals and legumes whenever possible, boost your omega-3 fatty acid intake with fish, flaxseed oil and Omega-3 enriched eggs, and take B complex and vitamin E supplements. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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