One might expect cancer survivors to be fanatically healthy eaters, but a new study suggests they eat a little worse than people who never had cancer.

Survey results from more than 1,500 U.S. adult survivors found they were less likely than others to adhere to national dietary guidelines. The findings raise questions about whether oncologists should do more to educate patients about the health benefits of improving their diets.

“In the past, when a person was diagnosed with cancer, we kind of gave the message that they should go home, eat whatever they want, put their feet up,” said study co-author Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, a nutrition scientist and associate director at University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“But most people with cancer are going to survive at least five years,” she added. “The message has changed: The chances are you are going to survive.”

With survival, she said, comes greater risk of a return of cancer or some other diseases. But better nutrition could potentially improve their odds, Demark-Wahnefried said.

Unhealthy diets have been linked to higher rates. The research doesn’t clarify why the diets of survivors are unhealthier, and it’s possible they actually began to eat better after they became ill.

The study involved just over 1,500 U.S. surveyed from 1999 to 2010, and nearly 3,100 people never diagnosed with cancer. Participants recalled what they ate over the previous 24 hours.

Cancer survivors scored only about 47 out of 100 on adherence to U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Consumption of vegetables and whole grains was especially poor, the researchers said. Adults who had not had cancer scored somewhat better — about 48 overall.

Compared to those who had not had cancer, the survivors consumed a bit more fat, added sugar and alcohol. They also ate a little less fiber, the findings showed.

Overall, the survivors also failed to consume the recommended daily amounts of vitamin D, vitamin E, potassium and calcium. And they went beyond recommended levels of saturated fat and salt, according to the report published online Oct. 13.

The surveys didn’t examine when the participants were diagnosed , so it’s not known how the timing of their illness might have affected their eating habits, the study authors pointed out.

“One possibility is that their diets were poor before, and they’re still poor now,” Demark-Wahnefried said. “After you’ve been diagnosed, sometimes you might say, ‘What the heck, what’s a brownie?’ That could be a factor. We really don’t know what drives these decisions.”


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