Cancer Survivors’ Diets Are Less Healthy Than Average

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Good nutrition is important for everyone. When combined with being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, eating well is an excellent way to help your body stay strong and healthy.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, eating well is even more important for you. What you eat can affect your immune system, your mood, and your energy level.

A study has found that compared to the general population, cancer survivors eat more empty calories -- including alcohol and foods high in saturated fat and added sugar -- and less fiber.

The study was published online on Oct. 13, 2015 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Diet quality of cancer survivors and noncancer individuals: Results from a national survey.”

In the study, the researchers analyzed the diets of 1,533 people who had been treated for cancer and were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2010. The researchers compared the quality of what they ate to the diets of more than 3,000 randomly selected people who had never been diagnosed with cancer. The people who had been diagnosed with cancer and the people who hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer were similar in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity.

To evaluate diet quality, the researchers looked to see how closely what the people ate aligned with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Completely following the dietary guidelines would give a diet a score of 100.

The researchers found that cancer survivors had a lower overall diet score -- 47.2 -- compared to people who weren’t diagnosed with cancer, who had a score of 48.3.

Compared to people who hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, cancer survivors:

  • ate less fiber and more fat and foods with added sugar
  • consumed less vitamin D (31% of the recommended intake) and vitamin E (47% of the recommended intake)
  • ate high amounts of saturated fat (112% of the recommended intake) and sodium (133% of the recommended intake)

The researchers also found that:

  • Diet quality in cancer survivors improved with age -- the older the survivor, the better the diet quality.
  • Survivors with less education (high school diploma or less) had worse diets than survivors with more education (bachelor’s degree or more).
  • Survivors who currently smoked had worse diets than non-smokers or former smokers.
  • Overall, breast cancer survivors had the best diet quality compared to the diets of prostate, lung, and rectal cancer survivors. Lung cancer survivors had the worst diet quality.

"The poorer diets in cancer survivors may be due to various factors," said Fang Fang Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and lead author of the study, in an interview. "Cancer treatment may cause food cravings and/or changes in taste preference. Such an impact may persist beyond treatment completion, making it difficult for survivors to adhere to a healthful diet.

"A high level of emotional distress during and after treatment may also negatively impact survivors' eating patterns," Dr. Zhang continued. "In addition, cancer patients may have a suboptimal intake at the time of diagnosis and continue to practice poor eating habits as survivors.

"Dietary changes that include more fiber, fruit, and vegetables in the diet and less fat, sodium, and added sugar would be important for cancer survivors," she said. "Oncology care providers can play critical roles in reinforcing the importance of a healthful diet, and can refer patients to registered dietitians who are experts in oncology care or to other reputable sources in order to improve survivors' overall health."

If you’ve been treated for breast cancer, it makes sense to do everything you can to ensure you’re as healthy as you can be, including:

  • eating a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • avoiding alcohol
  • exercising every day
  • not smoking

Don't think that you have to dramatically change your diet in one day. When treatment is over, you'll probably feel much better, but maybe not completely like you did before treatment. Your tastes may change, and you may find you don't like some foods anymore. Take it slowly and ease yourself into healthy eating and cooking.

To learn more about healthy eating and eating to lose weight, visit the Breastcancer.org Nutrition section.



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