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Patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head or neck were 93% less likely to die of any cause during the first three years after diagnosis if they ate a healthy diet high in nutrients found to deter chronic disease, researchers found in a recent study.

The study was published in Frontiers in Nutrition last week. Lead author Christian A. Maino Vieytes, is a predoctoral fellow in nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Vieytes told Inside Precision Medicine, “We demonstrated in previous published work, using these cohort data, that there were significant associations between dietary intake and survival, recurrence, the presence of nutrition impact symptoms 1 year post-diagnosis, and serum inflammatory cytokines/biomarkers, among others.”

In this study, he and his co-authors tracked outcomes for 468 patients who were part of the University of Michigan’s Head and Neck Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence. The program is a prospective survival cohort study that collects comprehensive data on patients’ diet and various lifestyle factors three times annually, from diagnosis through treatment.

They looked at six different diets and compared patient outcomes. The diets were selected based on literature review. “The goal was to evaluate adherence to different patterns of eating and explore how diet was related to cancer-specific and all-cause mortality,” Vieytes said.

During the period studied, 93 patient deaths from all causes were reported, including 74 cancer-related deaths.

“When we tested all of these indices [related to diets], what we found was that only one of them—the AHEI-2010—had a very strong relationship to the outcome of all-cause mortality,” Vieytes said. Each 11-point increase in adherence to the AHEI-2010 was associated with a 60% decrease in patients’ risk of death, he said.

Developed by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan Medical School as an alternative to federal dietary guidelines, the AHEI-2010 rates the quality of an individual’s diet from 0-110 based on how frequently they consume 11 categories of healthy and unhealthy foods. Higher scores reflect healthier eating habits, such as consuming five or more servings each of fruits and vegetables per day and avoidance of trans fats and sugary beverages, according to the program’s website.

In addition to the AHEI-2010, the researchers compared patients’ eating habits with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet; the Alternate Mediterranean Diet, also called aMED; and three types of low-carbohydrate diets, including a general low-carbohydrate diet as well as plans based on consumption of animal and plant proteins.

Two of the low-carbohydrate diets showed modest effects on patient mortality rates. Higher scores on the general and plant-based low-carbohydrate indices were associated with 59% and 71% decrements, respectively, in all-cause mortality, the researchers found. However, these findings failed to meet the threshold for statistical significance.

We think the AHEI-2010 is more nuanced for calculating all these dietary quality indices,” Vieytes said. “It relies on a number of different dietary components and has a very granular scale as opposed to some of the other indicators.” He added that, “AHEI-2010 was also more comprehensive in terms of the number of components it considered in its computation. There are 11 food/nutrient intake components reflected in the AHEI-2010 whereas all other indices required fewer components in their computation.”

The eating habits of the patients with the best survival rates aligned with the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010, a measure of dietary quality that rates foods based on their disease-fighting properties. The plan is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases.

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