When you hear the word “mediterranean”, you might imagine a beautiful beach, or hear the sounds of crashing waves and wind bustling through the trees. We often relate the mediterranean region to a slower way of life, good food, and happy people. The mediterranean includes western European countries such as Spain, Greece, Italy and Monaco and also includes countries of north Africa and eastern Europe. But what makes the traditional diet of these areas – known as the Mediterranean Diet – supposedly so healthy for us? The mediterranean diet has claimed that it can reverse cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even reduce the risk of cancer. So what is the secret of this region?
The mediterranean diet has been described as anything that is freshly picked, plucked or caught. This refers to the time when most people could not eat anything they didn’t grow or raise on their farm, or catch in the sea. Unfortunately, this way of life is fast disappearing, and even among the countries in the mediterranean region, compliance to the mediterranean diet is decreasing in favour of readily available, processed foods. Despite this, many studies have shown that a high compliance to the diet has many health benefits. The focus of this post is the health benefits with respect to a decreased risk of cancer.
What Foods Comprise the Mediterranean Diet?
There is no consensus as to what the mediterranean diet includes, but in general the foods that are eaten in greatest abundance are plant based, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. If you lived near water, fish was eaten several times per week, as well as poultry in moderation. Red meat was limited. Another important aspect of the diet is that olive oil is used in place of butter, and fresh herbs and spices are used instead of salt.
Red wine is also consumed in small amounts with meals. Red wine has been touted to be beneficial for health, and many nutritional sources will recommend no more than 1-2 glasses of wine per week. Due to the fact that addiction to alcohol is quite prevalent in our society, I recommend to patients who might struggle with alcohol to avoid it completely. Additionally, alcohol is rated as “probable” when it comes to its effect on causing and exacerbating cancer. If you have a cancer diagnosis and you are asking questions about what types of diet can fight cancer, that answer needs to include avoiding alcohol.
Benefits of Mediterranean Diet and Cancer
The most recent meta-analysis of the mediterranean diet, which includes all types of studies that have examined the mediterranean diet and cancer (randomized controlled trials as well as observational trials) reported some very interesting results. In general, a high adherence the mediterranean dietary pattern resulted in a reduced overall cancer mortality. This means that if you eat in this traditional way most of the time, you are less likely to die from cancer.
The benefits of this diet also don’t appear to be cancer specific. In fact, this study showed that there was a reduced risk of developing almost all types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and colorectal, three of the most common types of cancer. The biggest benefits of the mediterranean diet were seen with head and neck cancers, nasopharyngeal cancer, gastric cancer, and colorectal cancer. There was also a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, pancreatic cancer, gall bladder cancer and lymphoma.
How Does the Mediterranean Diet Reduce Cancer?
With all of the information out there about cancer-protective diets, it is hard to make heads or tails of it. However, when it comes to diet, it seems that an overall pattern is more important than consuming or avoiding one or two specific food groups.
For example, there is information supporting the fact that sugar fuels cancer, which may in turn lead someone to avoid all fruit completely because it contains sugar. However, fruits and vegetables are very high in fibre, and fibre has the ability to bind potentially carcinogenic compounds in our gut and remove them from the body. Fruits and vegetables also contain a high amount of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, both of which fight cancer. Therefore, it is more beneficial for someone fighting cancer to eat a dietary pattern rich in fruits and vegetables generally, versus avoiding just fruit.
There is also a well recognized benefit of healthy fats on fighting cancer. Tree nuts, olive oil and fatty fish contain high amount of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumours, and even cause cancer cells to die. Given the high amount of healthy fats in the mediterranean diet, it is not hard to see why this diet claims to be so healthy.
Another very important aspect of this diet, and one more important than ever to recognize these days, is the benefit of these foods for weight management. Obesity is becoming a worldwide health crisis, and some health experts will bravely state that obesity is likely one of the biggest causes of cancer. Obesity is also associated with inactivity, another largely accepted risk for developing cancer. Adipose tissue causes inflammation in the body, and high amounts of inflammation cause damage to our bodily tissues, thus causing cancer. Adipose tissue also acts like an endocrine organ, and can increase the levels of estrogen in the body, contributing to breast cancer.
The mediterranean diet might not be the perfect diet for fighting cancer, but there are aspects of it that should cause us to sit up and take note. High fibre, high antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, healthy fats – WHOLE, REAL FOOD. There are many types of foods that exist on our planet that you can include in your diet to get you a good ratio of these hallmarks just mentioned. If you don’t like fish or nuts, then these can be adjusted. Talk to a knowledgable nutrition expert today, or give me a call so that I can create a customized plan for you today.