Diet Quality Among Cancer Survivors
A recent study with approximately 2,000 participants showed that many cancer survivors are consuming low-quality diets. On average, participants scored a 55 (out of 100) on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI is used to see how an eating style aligns with the key recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Survivors were not eating the recommended amounts of green vegetables, whole grains, or beans; their sodium intake was too high; and the types of fat consumed were unhealthy. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that many cancer survivors are not following healthy eating recommendations. What factors influence cancer survivors’ food choices?
Related studies have shown that a variety of factors influence eating styles following cancer treatment. First, fatigue is one of the most common side effects post treatment. Low energy levels can reduce appetite and impact the ability to prepare healthy meals. Secondly, survivors are often dealing with taste and flavor changes, gastrointestinal discomfort, various forms of stress, and even depression. It can be challenging to overcome any one of these, yet patients are often dealing with several side effects simultaneously. Ultimately, these factors can make it more challenging to follow a cancer protective, plant-based eating style.
Diet and Cancer – Why It Matters
High quality eating styles have been shown to promote overall health and recovery for cancer patients. Eating a healthy diet also lowers the risk for other chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and obesity. Research has shown that adherence to a healthy, plant-based menu is associated with an overall decrease in mortality among cancer survivors whereas a typically Western menu of red and processed meat, fried foods, highly refined grains, and sugary beverages is associated with an overall increase in mortality among cancer survivors. Some factors that increase the risk of cancer, such as genetics, are not controllable. Choosing healthy foods, staying active and not smoking are controllable risk factors to reduce the risk of future cancer or disease. According to a study by the American Cancer Society, it’s estimated that more than 4 in 10 cancers and cancer deaths are linked to modifiable risk factors and therefore, could be preventable.
High-quality eating styles have been shown to promote overall health and recovery for cancer patients.
Cancer survivors are encouraged to include many whole, plant-based foods in their meals. Healthy plant-based eating styles contain a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans. Cancer survivors are also advised to choose portions of food that support a healthy body weight, and to limit their consumption of red and processed meats, sugary beverages and alcohol.
Tips for Cancer Survivors
When attempting to shift food habits, gradual changes are typically the most effective. Start small and build on your existing healthy behaviors. One effective strategy is to start by making nutritious substitutions to your meals. For example, replace your 100% beef burger with a blend of sauteed onions and mushrooms. You could add up to 50% vegetables to a burger or meatloaf recipe which is a great way to get more vegetables into your diet. Lean meat turkey burgers are always an option as well as are homemade veggie burgers. Try snacking on low-salt or unsalted mixed nuts or air popped popcorn instead of deep-fried potato chips. Another strategy is to add more nutrition into your current meals. Try tossing baby spinach greens into your pasta, soup or vegetarian chili. You could also try topping your whole grain toast with peanut butter & apple slices. These small and doable changes have the potential to create a lasting impact, especially when repeated over time.
Where To Find More Information
For more information on eating well as a cancer survivor, visit Survivorship Nutrition.
For more ideas and inspiration, you can also visit the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) website. AICR has excellent information on diet and health as well as a free, interactive program called the The Healthy10 Challenge. This program was designed by dietitians and can help you kickstart your healthy transition into cancer survivorship.
The American Cancer Society also provides healthy eating information for cancer survivors.
If you feel some one-on-one coaching might be helpful, or you have questions related to your personal situation, you can always ask your healthcare team for a referral to an oncology dietitian to help you find a healthy eating style.
This blog was produced and written by
The Cancer Nutrition Care Editorial Board
Lori Bumbaco, MS, RDN, CSO, LDN
Co-Founder, Cancer Nutrition Care
Madelyn Wilcox, RDN, CSO
Co-Founder, Cancer Nutrition Care
Executive Editor & Producer
Founder & President, Cancer Nutrition Care
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