Those who live in the Mediterranean spend much of their time outdoors, in the sun. You would think, with the extended sun exposure, skin cancer rates would be high, but the fact is, those in the Mediterranean region have lower rates of skin cancer than in the Americas. This information prompted a study to find out if the naturally olive-toned skin was protection from skin cancer or if there was another factor.
Researchers at the Tel Aviv University’s School of Health Professionals believe that the diet common in the Mediterranean area may act as a protector from damaging sun rays. Their study, published in Nutrition Reviews in 2010, showed that a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can help lower your risk of developing skin cancer. A previous, small study based in Italy and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2008, showed the same results. The Mediterranean diet, as it is often referred to, is high in plant-based foods, vegetables, fruits, olive oil, fish and fresh herbs - all food high in antioxidants.
When you are exposed to the sun’s UV rays, your skin is damaged and releases oxygen molecules called free radicals. When the free radicals damage your DNA, skin cells can become cancerous and replicate. Having a high level of antioxidants in your skin can "neutralize" the free radicals and slow down or prevent cancer.
In the study, participants were divided into two groups. One group was given a drink high in antioxidants while the other group received other beverages, such as soda every day during the study. After two weeks of five to six hours of sun exposure, researchers looked at blood samples from both groups. The group who had the antioxidant drink had 50 percent less oxidation products in their blood. Dr. Niva Shapira, lead author of the study stated, "My theory was that if you prepared the body with sufficient and relevant antioxidants, damage could be reduced." 
And more recently, this type of diet has been linked to better heart health. According to the New York Times, "About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables." 
The Components of the Mediterranean Diet
- The main oil used in cooking and for flavor is olive oil.
- Fruit and vegetables are eaten several times a day. Vegetables can be raw and cooked. (Potatoes don’t count as a vegetable)
- Legumes are eaten on a daily basis. This includes beans, soy and peas.
- Whole grains are used and eaten on a daily basis (whole grain breads do count)
- Nuts are eaten several times per week.
- Fish is eaten two or more times per week.
- Alcohol, preferably red wine, in moderation (1 to 2 drinks per day) is acceptable.
- Dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, preferably low-fat, can be eaten in moderate amounts on a daily basis
- Saturated fats, such as those from butter, meat and eggs (no more than 4 eggs per week) should be eaten only rarely
- Refined sugars and sweets are reserved for special occasions
- Red meat is eaten only rarely (one or two times per month)
- Foods on this type of diet are usually fresh. Processed foods are rarely eaten.
Instead of cakes and desserts containing refined sugars, desserts normally consist of fresh fruit. Remember though, the Mediterranean diet isn’t a diet in the normal sense of "going on a diet" but rather a lifestyle change in how you eat. By making some simple changes, such as switching to whole grains, using olive oil to cook with, having whole grain cereals for breakfast and eating more fruits and vegetables, you can help protect your heart and your skin.
Remember that eating these foods doesn’t mean you should stop using sunscreen and taking precautions before going out in the sun. Eating the Mediterranean diet is in addition to daily sun protection.
"A Protective Effect of the Mediterranean Diet for Cutaneous Melanoma," 2008, June, C. Fortes et al, International Journal of Epidemiology
"Ask the Dietician: Mediterranean Diet," 2001, Staff Writer, Cleveland Clinic
 Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke," 2013, Feb 25, Gina Kolata, The New York Times
 SPF on your Plate: Researcher Connects the Mediterranean Diet With Skin Cancer Prevention," 2010, Aug. 17, Science Daily
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.