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The Diet That May Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

A new study saw risk fall by more than two-thirds


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

Women: Want to cut your risk of breast cancer by more than two-thirds? Following the plant-based Mediterranean Diet may help, a new study says.

Eating a plant-based diet that’s high in olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and low in dairy products and red meat could help you ward off breast cancer, says a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

With 4,152 women participating, the study assigned them randomly to one of three diets. One was the Mediterranean Diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil. One was the Mediterranean Diet supplemented with nuts, and the third was a control group told to reduce fat. Participants ranged in age from 60 to 80 and were also at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. The women were followed for more than 4 1/2 years.

Thirty-five of the women in the study got breast cancer. But those who followed the diet with the extra-virgin oil supplement reduced their risk of breast cancer by 68 percent. Those on the diet with extra nuts also had fewer cases of breast cancer, but the results were not as striking as the olive oil version of the diet.

Not Conclusive

“The Mediterranean Diet is clearly associated with improved health and reduction of disease,” says Connie Diekman, Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book: All You Need to Lose Weight and Stay Healthy. But, she cautions, this small study cannot be seen as conclusive.

“The actual number of cases (35) is very small, so it hard to say for sure that diet was the factor that made the difference,” she says. “More studies are needed before we can say the diet reduced risk. In addition, this study was in women aged 60 and higher, so how much impact did their previous diet have on their disease risk?”

One of the known risk factors for breast cancer is excess body fat, so if a diet can help you have a healthy body weight, that can help reduce risk.

— Connie Diekman, Washington University

The study is unclear about precisely why the diet produced the promising results, but the monounsaturated fat in olive oil may be key. However, cautions Diekman, more research needs to be done. “We are still investigating how various diet components, versus the diet as a whole, impact disease risk. This study adds to the body of evidence but more research is needed before we can say this diet prevents breast cancer.”

One thing is clear: The Mediterranean Diet can be an effective way to lose weight because of its emphasis on vegetables and fruits. “Plant foods provide more fiber and aid the feeling of satiety,” Diekman says. “One of the known risk factors for breast cancer is excess body fat, especially post-menopause, so if a diet can help you have a healthy body weight, that can help reduce risk.”

Following a Mediterranean Diet

There isn’t one Mediterranean Diet; it can mean different things to different people. It is most of all an eating plan that starts with a large amount of fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts. It eliminates butter and replaces it with such healthy fats as olive oil.

The diet recommends a minimum of four tablespoons of olive oil a day. That includes for all cooking as well. It also reduces salt, opting instead for herb and spices to give food flavor.

Red meat? You’ll limit red meat to no more than once a week, getting protein mainly from fish or beans.

Bread is sometimes eaten, but when it is, it should be a whole grain version.

On the Mediterranean diet, you’ll eat no boxed or prepared foods, like Hamburger Helper or macaroni and cheese.

The diet resembles the way people who live in Greece and Italy eat. But there are variations.

As Diekman points out, “For those who live in Israel, eating is different than for those who live in Spain. But what is consistent is the higher plant food intake, the lower animal protein, and the higher consumption of fish.”

So what are the components of the Mediterranean Diet?

• Healthy fats  Olive oil, avocado, olives, and small servings of nuts will deliver healthy monosaturated fats.

• Legumes, seeds, nuts  Love hummus, made with chickpeas and olive oil? Such dishes, along with healthy seeds like chia and hemp, also offer better-for-you fats and fill you up. Include a small handful of nuts each day, too.

• Fish and eggs  Get your protein here! White or oily fish like cod or salmon a few times a week, even eggs, offer a low-fat delivery system for the protein your body needs. Seafood, like scallops and shrimp, are good, too. Occasionally enjoy lean meat and poultry, too.

• Parsley, rosemary, basil, dill These delicious herbs (and others) can flavor your food and eliminate your need for salt, which has been shown to be dangerous to your blood pressure, and a factor in weight gain.

• Lots of fruits and vegetables  Sneak them in whenever you can — grating them into sauces, piling them on salads, and even adding them to your scrambled eggs. Make fruit the centerpiece of your dessert. Not only does upping your vegetable consumption make you healthier, their fiber will help you feel full longer. That could translate to pounds lost.

• Time to enjoy it all  Diekman points out that in Mediterranean cultures, there’s great emphasis on eating with family and friends, and taking time to enjoy the meal.

While this study isn’t the final word on preventing breast cancer, Diekman says it is just more evidence that what we put in our mouths does impact our health. For more information on following the Mediterranean Diet, click here.

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