The primary and secondary prevention of cancer heavily depends on a healthy diet. One diet pattern that stands out from the rest is the Mediterranean diet. As a matter of fact, it’s actually linked to reducing the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, and cancer, especially breast and colon cancers. Reductions in inflammation, oxidative damage, metabolic syndrome, and weight are the primary mechanisms responsible for these effects. The primary food ingredients that make up the Mediterranean diet include fish, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, potatoes, fruits, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), moderate amounts of wine, and red meat (moderate consumption).
It also discourages people from eating processed foods and refined sugar, which are the main causes of chronic illnesses and cancers. The best thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it’s easy to follow, it has a vast and very delicious meal collection, and this diet goal is 100% attainable. Some of the food preparation techniques in the Mediterranean diet also improve the bioavailability of important nutrients. The Mediterranean diet is effective for primary and possibly secondary prevention of cancer based on both observational and clinical studies.
Does a Mediterranean Diet Reduce Cancer Risk?
More and more scientific studies seem to point a link between the Mediterranean diet and lower risk of developing cancer. However, we must take into consideration that these studies compared two groups of people where one group was made to follow the Mediterranean diet, while the other group was allowed to eat their traditional (and mostly unhealthy) meals. When compared to other healthy ways of eating, these studies do not show that the Mediterranean diet is way better in protecting people from diseases.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
Did you know that the Mediterranean diet has been considered as the most ideal healthy diet that it was made into a measuring tool to determine how healthy a person’s diet pattern is? The scoring system is called Alternate Mediterranean Diet Score or “aMED” for short. When you eat foods that are included in the Mediterranean diet like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dried beans, and peas, nuts, fish and less red meat and other processed foods, then you’ll get a higher score. You also get an extra point if you’ll use monounsaturated fat such as those found in olive oil, as well as in avocados, canola oil and many nuts, in place of saturated fat which most people use. Drinking wine will also get you one more point (for men they should drink an average of 5 – 12 glasses a week and for women only 2 – 7 glasses per week).
What Mediterranean Diet Research Means – and Doesn’t Mean
You also don’t have to import ingredients from other countries to prepare a purely “Mediterranean” cuisine. Even with foods like a Chinese stir-fry, Japanese sushi and Latin American beans and rice you can still get a high aMED score. The important thing is that you eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts than any other foods, as these foods are the core of this diet. Don’t worry about which specific foods you choose or how you flavor them.
Using healthy fat in food preparation is preferred more than high-fat. Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet is often cooked with relatively high fat due to the unhindered use of olive oil. However, the aMED scoring system gives points to meals eaten based on how healthy the ingredients in the food are and not its quantity. In this case, using more olive oil, which has the health-giving monounsaturated fat, adds more nutrients to your food than using saturated fat. In the PREDIMED trial conducted in Spain and in other observational studies, the calories produced by the olive oil in meals have been shown to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. The fact is that phenolic compounds and tocopherols (compounds related to vitamin E) are found in extra-virgin olive oil – these compounds may have some cancer-fighting properties. With olive oil having such benefit, isn’t it logical to switch from traditional sources of fat and calories to the more healthful olive oil. According to the AICR Continuous Update Project, weight gain and excess weight is associated with more risk of developing at least 11 different types of cancers. So it stands to reason that following an eating pattern like the Mediterranean diet would be ideal in maintaining a healthy weight in order to avoid getting these cancers.
Although the Mediterranean encourages people to drink wine, it does so in moderation. It must be common knowledge to everyone by now that red wine has some cancer-preventing properties through the resveratrol compounds it contains. But this is actually a misconception, as there are fewer human studies that show the exciting potential for anti-cancer effects of resveratrol. In fact, current studies are focused on isolated cells and animals; therefore more research on human subjects is needed to get conclusive evidence.
These all sums up to developing healthy habits that focus on nutrient-rich plant-based foods for which the diet scores were created for.
In the Million Women study, researchers discovered that the increased risk of getting cancer among women who only drank wine versus women who drank other alcoholic beverages was practically the same regardless whether they drank red, white or both variants of wine. A meta- analysis of 20 studies on women between 6 – 16 years old also found that women who drank wine and women who drank beer or liquor have the same increased risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol consumption.
One Plant-Based Approach to Prevent Cancer, Not the Only One
About 15% – 20% lesser mortality rate from cancer was found with people who had a high aMED scores compared to people with lowest scores in an analysis of three large U.S. studies that studied people’s diet patterns for many years. On the other hand, when the same test subjects were asked to follow the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans or a DASH-style diet, they showed similar results. This adds credence to what many experts have observed about the amazing health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.