Mediterranean Diet 'May Reduce Incidence of Breast Cancer': Study

Patient Expert

If you have followed nutrition news over the years, you have been bombarded with conflicting claims. Should you eat a low-fat diet? How important are carbohydrates in a healthy diet? What foods should you avoid? Are there foods that protect against cancer?

The answers seem to change every week, so many people just throw up their hands and decide to eat what they like best. One style of eating that has received much attention is the Mediterranean diet. Noting that people in Mediterranean countries have low rates of many diseases that plague Americans, some nutrition experts have been praising this diet for years. Proving that it actually improves health is much harder, because the health of the people in any region of the globe is also affected by exercise habits, air and water quality, and cultural factors related to rest, work, and socializing.

Hanna Bloomfield and her colleagues at the University of Michigan wanted to see how strong the evidence is concerning the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Their research looked at 56 studies published from 1990 through April 2016. They concluded that "[l]imited evidence suggests that a Mediterranean diet with no restriction on fat intake may reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes mellitus but may not affect all-cause mortality.”

Why wasn’t the evidence more conclusive? Not everyone agrees on what constitutes a Mediterranean diet. For purposes of this study, it was defined as having at least two of seven characteristics: more monounsaturated fats than saturated fats; plenty of fruits and vegetables; a high amount of legumes; a large proportion of grains and cereals; red wine in moderation; dairy products in moderation; and more fish than meat.

The studies that Bloomfield chose to review followed participants for at least a year, but that might not be long enough to have stronger evidence that a Mediterranean diet would reduce death rates from heart disease, breast cancer, or type 2 diabetes. Within a year, it would be possible to compare a lower rate of breast cancers diagnosed, but most people with breast cancer live much long than a year from diagnosis.

Nevertheless, the study reviewed suggests that a high-fat Mediterranean diet conferred a “Twenty-nine percent reduced risk of major cardiovascular events, a 57 percent lower risk of breast cancer, and a 30 percent lower risk of diabetes.” Also there is a reasonable explanation for how the diet might work: it reduces cholesterol, blood glucose level, and obesity risk factors associated with disease.

There is enough evidence to suggest that incorporating aspects of the Mediterranean diet into your life will help your health and may reduce your risk for diseases like breast cancer. Does this mean that you need to start eating Italian and Greek food? Not at all. Eat what you like, as long as you balance your plate in healthy ways.

Use these seven principles when planning what you eat:

  1. Use monosaturated fats like olive, peanut, or canola oils in place of butter or saturated fats. Nuts are another source of healthy fats.
  2. Pile your plate high with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  3. Add some beans to your diet in soups, dips, and chili.
  4. Include whole grain cereals and grains.
  5. An occasional glass of red wine is fine.
  6. Milk, cheese, and yogurt can add needed calcium and protein, but go easy with it Don’t get the double cheese on your pizza.
  7. Substitute fish and other seafood for some of the meat in your diet. Keep meat portions small in comparison to the rest of the meal.

The use of spices is not on the list of Mediterranean diet principles used in this study review, but a generous hand with the oregano, garlic, basil, and thyme will help you enjoy your food without excess salt. For many people who love Mediterranean food, it is the spices that give them such pleasure.

You can follow these basic principles even on your busiest days, and try out some new dishes when you have more leisure to experiment with the cuisine of the Mediterranean.

Two Menuenu for a busy day:

Breakfast: Yogurt with a sliced banana and granola** Sandwich shop lunch:** Turkey on flat bread piled high with your choice of veggies and dressed with olive oil, and an apple

Snack: Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit** Dinner:** Grilled or rotisserie chickenwith angel hair pasta tossed with olives, basil leaves and olive oil. Along with a spinach salad with orange sections, and finished off with a fruit sorbet

Menu for a leisurely day:

Breakfast: Omelet with tomatoes and mushrooms, and a slice of whole wheat toast

Lunch: Vegetable barley soup, hot whole wheat pita bread, and a cup of milk

Snack: Hummus with cucumber slices and pepper strips for dipping** Dinner:** Grilled salmon, baked potato with chives and cheese, broccoli stir-fried in olive oil, and a tossed salad with Balsamic dressing. Finished off with strawberries drizzled with honey, an almond cookie, and a glass of red wine

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Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer survivor who serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at She stays current on cancer information through attendance at conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. A retired teacher, she has been writing about cancer issues at HealthCentral since 2007.