Can the Mediterranean Diet Help You Fight Breast Cancer?

Expert insight on new research

Can the Mediterranean Diet Help You Fight Breast Cancer?

When you hear “Mediterranean diet,” do you think of  heart health?

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For years, researchers have explored the cardiovascular benefits of this diet. But did you know it has benefits related to cancer, too?

Most recently, a study team in Spain reported that eating a Mediterranean diet — with a heavy emphasis on olive oil — reduced breast cancer risk in women who participated.

The study comes with limitations, but it at least shines a light on something important: When it comes to breast cancer, diet and weight management matter. That’s important, because you can control what you eat.

What the study says

The breast cancer and nutrition study was done as part of the much larger PREDIMED study, which focused on cardiovascular disease. That larger trial showed a 30 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke through use of the Mediterranean diet.

“Data like this has led the National Comprehensive Cancer Network to recommend a diet that looks very similar to the Mediterranean diet, even if they don’t call it by that name.”

 

Holly Pederson

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Holly Pederson, MD

Breast Center

For the focus on breast cancer, researchers divided more than 4,000 women ages 60 to 80 into two intervention groups, plus a control group. Each intervention group was advised to eat a Mediterranean diet. One group also added a focus on mixed nuts, while another added a focus on olive oil.

Over a five-year period, the results showed a 68 percent reduction in risk of breast cancer for the olive oil group compared with the control group.

It’s a big number, and it sounds promising. But there are a few limitations. First, since this was part of PREDIMED, the women were all at risk of cardiovascular disease, but not necessarily breast cancer. Also, the women were not all screened for breast cancer with a mammogram.

The number of breast cancer events was small, and the study time was only five years. So while the study design may be enough to show an association, it’s not enough to show a cause-and-effect relationship.

Be aware of weight and risk

Even with those limitations, a study like this helps raise awareness about the importance of diet, weight management and cancer risk.

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Being obese has a negative effect on breast cancer outcomes. For example, having a high body mass index (BMI) has been linked to a higher mortality rate for women with breast cancer. And previous study reviews have linked a Mediterranean diet — which can help women reach and maintain a healthier weight — with reducing your risk of breast cancer.

Data like this has led the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) to recommend a diet that looks very similar to the Mediterranean diet, even if they don’t call it by that name.

The NCCN recommends that two-thirds of a cancer survivor’s diet come from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and similar sources, while only a third or less should come from animal proteins. They also recommend avoiding or limiting red meat and processed meats. They promote plant-based fats such as olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet and the focus of the most recent study.

Whether you’re a breast cancer survivor or someone who is concerned about future risk, ask your doctor about nutrition recommendations.

You can’t control all of the risk factors for breast cancer — but you can control your diet and aim for quality nutrition and a healthy weight. And a Mediterranean diet is one safe, proven approach to doing so.

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Holly Pederson, MD

Holly Pederson, MD, is a Staff Physician and Director of Medical Breast Services at Cleveland Clinic's Breast Center.
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