WASHINGTON — A new study finds that cancer survivors, as a whole, have bad eating habits — they take in a lot of empty calories and are less likely to eat a healthy diet than Americans in general.
Researchers at Tufts University in Boston analyzed the diets of 1,500 cancer survivors and 3,000 adults with no history of the disease, ranking them according to government dietary guidelines.
No one did well, but the cancer survivors did worse.
“It is troubling,” says Danielle Cook, an holistic nutritionist and the author of “Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids with Cancer.”
Cook, whose own son beat cancer as a child, is especially concerned about teen and young adult cancer survivors.
“Once their treatment is done, a lot of them feel invincible and the nutrition component just doesn’t really come into play,” she says.
The Tufts researchers looked at survivors across a range of ages, and the authors of the study point out that poor eating habits can increase their risk of developing other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
“It is quite remarkable that you can come through a cancer and you put yourself at risk for other illnesses and setback by following a poor diet,” says Cook.
She emphasizes there is a tremendous need for cancer survivors to pay attention to what they are eating, and focus on what she calls “real foods” — fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats.
The Tufts study did not look at the reasons behind the poor dietary choices of cancer survivors. Treatment can cause nausea and affect the taste buds, but those side effects tend to ease over time.
It’s possible the poor food choices are the result of bad habits acquired during chemotherapy, when patients start eating certain calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods to counter weight loss.
But Cook says there can also be a bit of patient rationalizing at play.
“What is concerning to me is those patients who just feel that the nutrition component really isn’t that important, that they beat cancer and should just go about living their life,” she says.
The Tufts researchers says the cancer survivors they surveyed went beyond recommend levels of saturated fat and salt, and did not get enough vitamin D, vitamin E, potassium or calcium.
Their findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cancer.