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Can Your Diet Actually Prevent Breast Cancer?

An important study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine confirmed what doctors had suspected for some time but had been unable to prove. You can definitely reduce your risk of developing invasive breast cancer by pledging to follow that Mediterranean Diet you’ve read about but never got around to taking seriously.

Researchers in Spain assigned 4,200 women to one of three eating programs:

  • Group One: a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil
  • Group Two: a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with mixed nuts
  • Group Three: a control group eating pretty much what they wanted

At the end of just five years, there was one case of breast cancer in Group One, two cases in Group Two, and three cases in the control Group Three. In other words, following a Mediterranean Diet and adding olive oil reduces breast cancer risk by two-thirds.

Did we know this all along?
No, but it was strongly suspected because people following a Mediterranean Diet were simply healthier than everyone else. Studies had shown that eating the Mediterranean way enhanced weight loss in overweight people and prevented heart attacks, strokes, Type 2 diabetes, and premature death from all causes, including cancer. In addition, epidemiologists were aware that other countries on the Mediterranean Sea had lower rates of breast cancer.

It’s vital to work toward prevention. Since 2008 there has been a 20% increase worldwide in the incidence of invasive breast cancer and an overall mortality rate increase of 14%. More women are being diagnosed and dying from invasive breast cancer than ever before.

Importantly, invasive breast cancer is not the same as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which I wrote about recently. Invasive breast cancer can kill you if it’s not treated. DCIS does not.

Mediterranean Diet 101
Perhaps Mark Bittman described the diet most succinctly when he wrote, “You eat like a Greek, or like a Greek used to eat: a piece of fish with a lentil salad, some greens and a glass of wine. It’s not onerous. In fact, it’s delicious.”

Here are the basics of Mediterranean eating. If you need help with food selection, grocery lists, and preparation, schedule a visit with one of our nutritionists–Marla Feingold, Marcy Kirshenbaum, or Seanna Tully.

  • Abundant amounts of plant foods daily: vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes.
  • Fresh fruit as a daily dessert.
  • Olive oil as principal fat (along with a few nuts).
  • Minimal dairy (mainly Greek cheeses and yogurt).
  • Fish twice weekly or more.
  • Moderate portions of poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt.
  • Red meat rarely.
  • Sweets rarely.
  • Moderate amounts of red wine.

Abandon forever sugar-laden foods (table sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, candies, cookies, ice cream), processed meats (sausages, hot dogs), refined grains, refined oils (soybean, canola, cottonseed), and all processed foods (including everything labeled “low-fat,” “diet,” and/or made in a factory).

Water is your beverage of choice, green tea is a plus, and a glass or two of red wine is just fine (unless you’re an AA member). Regular consumption of green tea will lower your breast cancer risk. However if you find it unpalatable (as I do), green tea concentrate is available as a nutritional supplement.

If you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or don’t enjoy fish and other seafood, take a fish oil capsule twice daily. If red wine doesn’t suit you, take Resveratrol Ultra, one capsule daily. Vegans and vegetarians definitely need to have their vitamin B-12 and D levels measured. Low B-12 or D are definitely associated with increased breast cancer risks.

You can easily supplement B-12 with chewable tablets and D with Bio D Mulsion Forte drops.

The Mediterranean way of living also involves being physically active, sharing meals with others, and generally enjoying life. As you make your way forward, keep in mind the words of Zorba the Greek, who said “I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”

Though I doubt he was grilling a Polish sausage on his little brazier.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. David Tenenbaum says:

    If you’re vegan, you won’t be taking fish oil capsules any time soon to supplement your diet. A much healthier option is flax seed oil. In fact when you consider fish farms that use antibiotics and the contamination of fresh water fish (from Fukishima radiation to toxic metals and chemicals), the only sensible and humane diet is the vegan diet. No violence needed to cultivate plants-no fish hooks or nets that snuff out a life in mid stream.

  2. Imran says:

    Hi Dr E,
    Have you looked into the Blue Zones study/book where they looked into the populations with the longest living people? Sardinia was one of the 5 groups. They noted a number of characteristics including a primarily plant-based diet with starches at the center which is contrary to the ideas of “starch=evil” by Paleo/Atkins diet gurus.

    Also, sounding off on the other comment, the global fish supply is expected to collapse (conservatively) by 2050. Watch “End of the Line” on Netflix (and check out Cowspiracy there too on how animal agriculture is the #1 cause of global warming, species extinction, deforestation, water shortage, etc.) Destroy the oceans, destroy the planet. We are quite literally eating the planet to death.

  3. carol diehl says:

    Just a reminder that if you are going to use a lot of olive oil it should be fresh. Buy in small amounts and store in a cool dark place. Too many people put it on a shelf over the stove where it can easily turn rancid, and/or keep an opened bottle for months. I put mine in a wide-mouth jar in the fridge and spoon out what I need.

  4. Joan Conover says:

    When I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer last summer, my first thoughts were along the lines of what I did I do to cause this to happen (lifestyle). I am a nutritious eater, fortunately your list of Abandon Forever items were never part of my diet, and I never abandoned eggs, cheese, and yogurt when it was in vogue to eliminate diary, and thanks to Weight Watchers 10 years ago, I increased my daily intake of olive oil and limited red wine to 2 glasses a week. I am active and a positive thinker and have wonderful relationships with family and friends. All these healthy habits have kept me healthy in all the other ways health is measured, and have likely contributed greatly to my recovery, but preventing breast cancer, no. I had been low on Vitamin D, and since have increased my sun time and I am taking a drop on the tongue each morning. So, what’s my comment? I would love to be liberated from the stress of trying to figure out why I got breast cancer and that in some way I was responsible.

  5. Judi Knoefler says:

    Too bad they didn’t try the mediteranian diet with no added olive oil, and especially heated olive oil. Cancer incidence has been shown to go up with the fat intake.

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