Cancer survivors urged to improve their diet to aid recovery – new study

Less than half the people surveyed achieved the minimum daily goal of five servings of fruit and vegetables

Eilish O'Regan

Cancer patients need to improve their eating habits to help boost their recovery, according to a new study.

The results come from a survey of 35 Irish cancer survivors asked to complete a three-day food diary as well as provide their weight and height.

Researchers from the Department of Health and Nutritional Science at the Atlantic Technological University in Sligo investigated how their eating habits measured up against guidelines from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

They found the diet quality of the cancer survivors was low and had poor adherence to cancer prevention guidelines.

The cancer survivors were attending community-based cancer support centres and oncology rehabilitation programmes.

The majority were female, aged 50-59, overweight and had been diagnosed less than two years previously.

The most consumed food groups were vegetables and salad, fruit, milk and cream, potatoes, meat and meat products.

The most consumed drinks were water, black tea infusion, milk, tea with milk, and coffee with milk, the study in the Irish Medical Journal reported.

Guidelines from the cancer research bodies say everyone should eat at least 30g of fibre from food per day and should increase consumption of fruit.

The guidelines also suggest not resorting to using supplements, but instead rely on food for nutrition.

People should include foods containing whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, fruit and pulses such as beans and lentils in most meals.

They should eat a diet high in all types of plant foods, including at least five portions or servings of a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruit every day.

If they eat starchy roots as staple foods, they should also regularly consume non-starchy vegetables, fruit and pulses.

The Irish patients scored lowest on increasing consumption of whole grains and fibre, and their fibre intake was particularly low.

They did best at not consuming sugar-sweetened drinks – but their sugar intake was still high. Intake of saturated fat was also high.

Diets that are low in fibre and rich in fat and sugar are more likely to cause weight gain.

Nearly half of the people in the study had seen their weight increase since cancer diagnosis, with most classified as overweight or obese.

Only 42.9pc achieved the minimum daily goal of five servings of fruit and vegetables. The average intake from added sugar was double the guideline of less than 10pc.

Emphasising the importance of diet, the researchers said there was growing evidence that supporting optimal nutrition in cancer survivors had benefits.

This ranges from relief of symptoms and treatment of related side effects to improvements in quality of life and survival.

“There is a vital need for adequate nutrition support for cancer survivors particularly as they are at increased risk of developing secondary cancers,” they said.

Few people with cancer have access to a registered dietitian, which the authors said is an area that needs to be explored.