of us are familiar with the link between a Mediterranean-style diet and
protection against heart disease. But several new studies present evidence that
this plant-based diet – which features plenty of vegetables and limited meat,
with olive oil the primary source of fat – also reduces cancer risk.
The latest study
to make headlines was published in July in the
British Journal of Cancer. Researchers compiled information on over
25,000 Greek men and women and evaluated the relationship between adherence to
a traditional Mediterranean Diet and cancer incidence.
Although none of
the individual components of a Mediterranean diet were shown to significantly
affect the participants’ cancer incidence, the dietary pattern as a whole
proved promising. People who most closely conformed to the key dietary
characteristics of a Mediterranean diet (ranking highest on at least two-thirds
of the factors considered hallmarks of the diet) were 22 percent less likely to
the key dietary characteristics included on the adherence scale were: above
average consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts, legumes, grains or fish;
below average consumption of meat or dairy products; greater than average
proportion of monounsaturated versus saturated fat consumption.
In addition, even
those participants who did not closely adhere to the diet showed more
protection from cancer the closer they came to the dietary goals. In other
words, a few simple changes like adding more beans, or boosting vegetables and
switching from butter to olive oil as the primary fat, could significantly
change cancer risk.
In studies among
the U.S. population, people who eat according to a more Mediterranean-type
pattern have also shown lower cancer risk.
Research published in the
of Internal Medicine in 2007 revealed that men who most closely followed a
Mediterranean diet showed 17 percent lower cancer mortality and women 12
percent lower, compared to those with the lowest Mediterranean diet
A 2008 study that
looked at diet patterns and breast cancer risk also showed that cancer
incidence decreased when participants’ diets most closely resembled a
Mediterranean pattern. According to the study authors, these women lowered
their incidence of breast cancer by nearly a quarter compared to women whose
diets were least like this pattern.
But not all research supports
this link. In fact, a study that was recently published in the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found
no connection between the Mediterranean-type diet and cancer.
One potential reason: Participants in this study
who were labeled as part of the Mediterranean group ate less than half the
vegetables and consumed less fruit, more meat and a higher percentage of
saturated fat than the high adherence Mediterranean groups in the two
mechanism behind the purported protective effect of the diet? Experts suggest
that increased antioxidant levels due to more vegetables, fruit and olive oil
and less meat could contribute to both the reduction of heart disease and the
lower cancer incidence.
addition, with its emphasis on low-calorie-dense foods like vegetables, fruit,
legumes and grains, the Mediterranean diet could also support weight
maintenance – a critical step to reduce risk of heart disease and several types
of cancer. Be sure to note, however, that if thoughts of olive oil’s
healthful qualities lead you to use excessive amounts or to overeat,
that could lead to weight gain – which adds cancer risk.
September 1, 2008
Contact: Sarah Wally, (202) 328-7744
The American Institute for Cancer Research
(AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of
nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets
the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has
contributed more than $86 million for innovative research conducted at
universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has
published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the
field and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a
wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make
dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate
program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its Web site, www.aicr.org.
AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International.
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