Eating Healthy Means Better Survival After Cancer Treatment

Cancer survivors can lower their risk of cancer-related death in the future by up to 65 percent through a diverse, low fat diet

Health Writer

You fought a courageous battle with cancer. You may have had to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of treatments. You’ve had days where you felt so low that you had difficulty grasping the hopeful outcome you so wanted and deserved. You hear the magic words that the cancer is gone or you are in remission. You’ve survived! Maybe you’re thinking, “What are the best lifestyle habits I can practice, moving forward, to ensure that I live as long as I can?” Daily exercise supports overall better health and longevity. But what about your diet? Is there conclusive evidence to support a specific dietary program for optimal post cancer survival? A sensible, low fat diet may be the way to go.

A June 2018 study published in the journal JNCI Spectrum looked at the impact of an “overall healthful diet” for cancer survivors to see if a particular eating approach offered any specific benefits, like extended lifespan. The study examined data on 1200 cancer survivors enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1988 and 1994. The researchers evaluated the quality of participants’ diets, using the Healthy Eating Index to score their adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A high score indicates a higher diversity of foods consumed, meaning a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and dairy, with saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium in moderate amounts.

The researchers also used data from the National Center for Health Statistics Linked Mortality Files to see the rates of death among the 1200 subjects. They found that in a 17-year follow-up period, 607 of the subjects diagnosed with cancer had died. When the researchers correlated the data, they found that cancer survivors who consumed a diet with a high Healthy Eating Index had a 65 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, compared to cancer survivors whose diet was on the opposite spectrum of the index. The impact of this healthy diet was seen through all subgroups of cancer. Other studies have found a similar finding in breast cancer survivors and skin cancer survivors. Moreover, this dietary approach is associated with decreased disease-related deaths overall.

It’s important to note that the findings from this study were observational and data was collected from NHANES, a series of questionnaires that have some subjectivity when it comes to participant recall and answers. The researchers suggest using the My Plate guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, or Healthy People 2020 as a guide to create a sensible eating food plan.

It can’t be a stretch for most people, given the recent discussion about links between obesity and a number of cancers, to understand how important it is to avoid weight gain to help prevent cancer onset or recurrence. Fat feeds cancer cells, so excess fat means a higher risk of cancer. Eating less fat and controlling portion size are important components of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Food costs are important considerations for many people, as well.

Food superstars

Calling anything a superfood can often tempt you to overeat that particular food instead of choosing from a bounty of healthy food selections. Learn what experts recommend eating from the food groups, and then eat a variety from each group. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, there’s no “bad seed.” Darker leafy vegetables may have larger doses of certain antioxidants and phytochemicals, compared to medium-tone and light-colored greens. Different colors also represent a variety of vitamins and nutrients. Eat a bouquet of colors daily to get these different benefits. Aim for about six servings of vegetables and four to six servings of fruit. Using an oil-based dressing or a bit of oil during cooking can help you to access some of the fat-soluble vitamins in vegetables. Corn, peas, and potatoes are considered starchy vegetables, so use strict portion control and count servings as if they are “grains.” Avoid fried or processed versions.

Proteins: Aim for two to three daily servings of fish, eggs, and plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, legumes. Limit your meat intake: consider lean red meat as an occasional treat and choose white-meat and skinless options when possible. Though dairy is a separate food group, Greek lowfat or nonfat yogurt and low-sodium, lowfat cottage cheese can also be counted as proteins. Remember to choose unprocessed versions of these foods.

Grains: Choose minimally processed grain products like steel-cut oatmeal, high-fiber breads and cereals, sourdough bread, high-protein pastas, and whole-grain rice.

Fats: Monounsaturated fats and secondarily polyunsaturated fats are best choices. Nuts and nut butters, oily fish, flaxseed, and avocados all contain healthy fats. Coconut oil, though quite trendy, contains saturated fat and the current research does not support high consumption. Portion control is very important since this group is higher in calories (nine calories per gram compared to proteins and carbohydrates which contain four calories per gram).

Dairy foods: Choose mostly lowfat (one-percent milk) or fat-free milk, yogurt, and cheeses and watch portion sizes. Opt for minimally processed foods. Many of the new popular nut milks have little nutritional value and loads of additives, so read labels carefully.

Limiting the cost of a healthy, sensible diet

Day-old fresh baked breads can save you money, and slightly bruised fruits and vegetables can also help your food budget and work well in smoothies, soups, salads, healthy chili and stews. Buying produce, fish, eggs, and other unprocessed foods in bulk can also be budget-friendly. As soon as you bring bulk items home, separate into portion-sized packages. Canned foods (look for low sodium) and frozen foods are also cheaper.

You’ve just recently fought the battle of your life for your life. Optimize your diet to maintain your health and to continue living a long life. Consider meeting with a dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in cancer patients. They can help you to construct a tasty, healthy, and sensible food plan that can be personalized to your specific taste preferences, health needs, and health goals.

See more helpful articles:

Can Cancer Risks Linger After Weight Loss?

Metastatic Breast Cancer: What Can I Do About Weight Gain?

12-Month Plan for a Lighter, Healthier You