Cancer can be the biggest fight of a person’s life, and survival rates are rising, but beating the disease is not the end of their health problems. A new study has found that cancer patients tend to have poorer diets than others, which could put their health at risk.
The study from Dr. Fang Fan Zhang, a nutrition researcher at Boston’s Tufts University, and other researchers, looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between the years 1999 and 2010. 1,533 American adults participating in that survey reported how often they ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, dairy, seafood, plant proteins, and fatty acids. In addition, the researchers looked at how often people ate poor dietary choices, like salt, refined grains, and empty calories. The researchers then assigned each person’s diet a score, with a score of 100 for diets that contained all the recommended servings of foods without the non-nutritious foods. This was based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which were issued by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.
When the researchers crunched the numbers, they found differences in the diets of cancer survivors and other study participants. On average, people in the study received a dietary score of 48.3. Cancer survivors, however, received an average score of 47.2. In general, cancer survivors in the study seemed to eat fewer vegetables but more solid fats, sugary foods, empty calories, and alcohol.
The adherence to dietary guidelines did seem to improve with age. Smokers and those with a lower level of education tended to have a worse diet. Breast cancer survivors seemed to adhere the best to dietary suggestions, while lung cancer survivors seemed the least likely to follow the dietary guidelines.
However, the researchers did not have data on whether the diets had changed since before a cancer diagnosis, and if the poor diets could have affected their cancer risk in the first place. Researchers tend to agree that the risk of cancer could be reduced by a diet of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, legumes, and nuts and seeds, along with low alcohol consumption, no smoking, and regular exercise.
There are some possible reasons for cancer survivors’ change in diets after they complete their treatments. Some cancer survivors have altered taste and a decreased appetite. Some survivors suffer from fatigue, making them less willing and able to devote the time needed to preparing nutritious meals. Other cancer survivors who have lost weight may be encouraged by their health care provider to eat high calorie and high protein foods to boost their weight, instead of focusing on healthy choices. Another possibility is that as cancer survivors struggle to pay for their treatments and cope with lost income as they battle their illness, they are then less likely to be able to afford healthy food choices later on.
The problem with poor diet in cancer survivors is that they may be at an increased risk of other health conditions, especially as they recover from invasive cancer treatments. Many chronic health conditions can result from low fiber intake and eating too many empty calories, so these poor diets could lead to future health problems. A nutritious diet, on the other hand, could help cancer survivors reduce their risk of complications and help them build up their strength.
With so many studies linking the benefits of a healthy diet, and the risks of a poor diet, to health and disease, it seems like better diets could help cancer survivors regain their health to live a longer, healthier life. The researchers suggest that oncology care providers should place a greater emphasis on the benefits of a healthy diet, helping cancer survivors improve their diet for the benefit of their health.