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Diet and Cancer Survivors

Diet and Cancer Survivors

November 16, 2015 | Author: Susan Silberstein PhD
Diet and Cancer Survivors - Beat Cancer Blog

A new Tufts University study published a couple of weeks ago in the journal Cancer found that cancer survivors aren’t eating as well as they should. Big surprise! These patients were found to be indulging in too much junk food and not getting enough fiber and essential nutrients. Well, considering that most oncologists don’t tell their patients about the benefits of healthful eating to improve survival and quality of life, of course many patients don’t eat well.

It is well known that cancer survivors are at high risk of recurrence and other health problems throughout their lives. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can all cause side effects — both short-term and long-term. Depending on the type of treatment, survivors may be at increased risk of heart problems, lung problems, gastro-intestinal problems or other types of cancer.

One way to prevent complications is to maintain a good diet. But according to the new study, many survivors simply aren’t doing that. I wonder just how long they will remain survivors – not to mention whether the survivors are thrivers.

In a recent Norwegian study of 862 cancer survivors and lifestyle, more than 80 percent failed to meet the goal of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.  That’s not my goal – I’m looking to double or triple that!

The Tufts study found that cancer survivors eat less fiber and take in more empty calories than people who have never had cancer. Researchers concluded that “dietary changes that include more fiber, fruit, and vegetables and less fat and added sugar would be important for cancer survivors.”  At, we’ve been recommending that for years.  In fact, there are over two dozen mechanisms and advantages by which nutritional support influences survival and quality of life in diagnosed patients. You can read about them in my book, Kitchen Chemotherapy.

The research team, led by Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, PhD, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, looked at the diets of 1,533 adults, including those with cancer, who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2010.  The team used the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans created by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services – guidelines which, by our standards, are not even optimal for cancer control.

The study results were based on a total healthy eating index score of 100. Cancer survivors scored 47.2, while those who never had cancer scored 48.3.  That’s certainly not much of a difference. But when you figure in those with cancer who ate poorly and did NOT survive, you might find a much greater difference!

People who had had cancer scored poorly when it came to eating green vegetables and whole grains.  They consumed less fiber, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals than the recommended daily amount (RDA). Those who had a history of cancer also took in more empty calories and ate more saturated fat than healthy adults.

“Unfortunately,” said Zhang, “nutrition is not routinely integrated into the delivery of optimal care for cancer patients. Given the poor diet quality we and others found in cancer survivors, and the high chronic disease burden in this population, it is imperative to routinely integrate nutrition intervention to improve the health and well-being of cancer survivors….” Amen!

Dr. Zhang concluded that her study “shows that it is critical for all providers working with cancer survivors to provide education and support to help patients achieve a cancer recurrence-preventive diet.” Certainly, the issue of nutritional support for patients who struggle to eat during treatment due to nausea, taste changes, or loss of appetite can be challenging, but that’s one of our specialties at If you would like help with food choices and menu planning, request to speak with one of our counselors, who will review your diet in great detail and recommend health-promoting changes. And if you need some healthful, simple, and tasty recipes, look no further than Hungry for Health

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[1] Cancer Survivors Aren’t Eating as Well as They Should. HealthlineNews Oct. 13, 2015.

[2] Gjerset G, Loge J, Gudbergsson S, Bye A, Fossa S and Oldervoll L. Lifestyles of cancer survivors attending an inpatient educational program-a cross-sectional study. ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed Oct 27, 2015].