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Eating a High-Quality Diet Could Decrease Cancer Survivors’ Risk of Death by 65%

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Key Points

  • Cancer survivors who scored high on the Healthy Eating Index were 65% less likely to die from cancer than survivors who ate a poor-quality diet.
  • The strongest predictor of decreased mortality risk was based on the overall diet.

Cancer survivors who consumed a balanced, nutrient-dense diet had a 65% lower risk of dying from cancer than survivors who ate a poor-quality diet, according to findings published by Deshmukh et al in JNCI Cancer Spectrum. The study suggests that more than focusing on any particular food group, cancer survivors should strive for a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, and dairy at recommended serving sizes for age, height, and weight.

Dietary guidelines for cancer survivors have been limited or have tended to focus on specific food recommendations for people with particular cancers, said the study’s senior author, Kalyani Sonawane, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Services Research, Management, and Policy at the University of Florida (UF) College of Public Health and Health Professions. For example, colon cancer survivors have been cautioned to limit red meat consumption.

“While dietary guidelines for the general public have moved toward a total diet approach, such an approach has not been extensively studied among cancer survivors,” Dr. Sonawane said. “It’s just like what our grandmothers used to say: Eating foods in moderation is good for your health. That is the idea behind looking at a total diet approach and cancer outcomes.”

Study Methods

To determine how an overall healthy diet might impact cancer survivors’ outcomes, the UF team analyzed data collected between 1988 and 1994 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics to assess the health and nutritional status of American adults and children. The survey’s interview component asks participants to report everything they had eaten over the previous 24 hours.

The UF research team identified nearly 1,200 cancer survivors among the participants and assessed their diets using the Healthy Eating Index score, a measure of diet quality based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A high score indicates a healthy overall diet that conforms to the guidelines’ serving recommendations for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, dairy, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and includes sufficient food variety.

Next, UF investigators linked those study participants to records in the National Center for Health Statistics Linked Mortality Files through 2011. During an average follow-up of 17 years, 600 participants had died.

Major Findings

They found that cancer survivors who scored high on the Healthy Eating Index were 65% less likely to die from cancer than survivors who ate a poor-quality diet. The researchers analyzed individual dietary components, such as salt or meat consumption, but found the strongest predictor of decreased mortality risk was based on the overall diet. They also examined diet and mortality for survivors of all cancers, as well as for subgroups of skin and breast cancer survivors.

“The findings were consistent among these subgroups—that eating an overall healthy diet was associated with decreased mortality risk, whether it is mortality from any cause or cancer-specific mortality,” said lead author Ashish A. Deshmukh, PhD, Assistant Professor in the UF Department of Health Services Research, Management, and Policy.

The researchers said the study provides initial evidence of the benefits of a total diet approach for cancer survivors and that more research is needed, such as studies that prove a cause-and-effect relationship between healthy diet and cancer outcomes.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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