Researchers say choosing a healthy diet helps decrease the risk of chronic disease.
The study was carried out by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, in collaboration with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee.
The team examined whether there was a connection between childhood cancer treatment and the survivors' nutritional intake.
Using a self-administered Block Food Frequency questionnaire, the study looked at the diets of 2,570 adult survivors of childhood cancer to see if they met the requirements of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The results were recently published in The Journal of Nutrition.
Researchers found that study participants had particularly low intakes of whole grains but excessive intakes of sodium and so-called empty calories, which are those from solid fats and added sugars.
The study found "excessive levels of sodium and saturated fat, both of which are risk factors for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity," explains lead researcher Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, from Tufts University.
"When compared to existing dietary recommendations, we found that childhood cancer survivors consumed below the recommended intake of fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin E," Dr. Zhang added.
Risk of second cancer and chronic illness decreased by healthy diet
By contrast, a diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains - with limited amounts of fat, red and processed meat, as well as low added sugar - may reduce the risk of developing second cancers and the risk of chronic diseases, according to the latest Cancer Treatment and Survivorship report by the American Cancer Society.
Researchers led by Zhang used the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010) to calculate how well study participants adhered to the Dietary Guidelines.
The index works on a scale from zero to 100, where zero indicates no adherence and 100 represents perfect adherence. The group of participants averaged only 57.9 on the scale.
Cancer care should include nutrition
Both Zhang and Melissa Hudson, M.D., St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, point out the importance of incorporating nutrition into cancer care. "Healthy eating can improve the physical and mental functioning of childhood cancer survivors," says Dr. Zhang.
"The findings of this study emphasize the importance of integrating nutritional services and interventions to promote healthy dietary habits in childhood cancer patients during treatment and throughout survivorship care."
Dr. Melissa Hudson
She goes on to say that "survivors of childhood cancer have a high prevalence of chronic health problems that may be exacerbated by poor nutrition." A study following up on pediatric cancer survivors found that 50% of them had developed a severe or life-threatening chronic health condition by 50 years of age.
According to another study quoted by the American Cancer Society, more than half of the childhood cancer survivors that underwent potentially toxic treatments - for example, chest radiation or anthracyclines - go on to experience heart or lung problems later in life.
The study led by Dr. Zhang did not compare survivors' diets with the dietary intake of those who have not had cancer. However, Dr. Zhang reports that adult cancer survivors have "worse overall diet quality compared to age- and sex-matched controls in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey."
The researchers mention that the current study did not account for dietary supplements, such as vitamins or minerals.