It is estimated that one out of eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and currently 40,000 women die each year of the disease. Interestingly, for American women, the breast cancer rate is 5 times higher than compared to other countries. While breast cancer detection and treatments have been getting progressively better, and our allopathic medical community is beginning to realize the value of nutritional therapies, we are still a long way from significantly improving outcomes for all types of breast cancer. Where I think we have made good progress is in our understanding of the dietary and lifestyle factors that increase breast cancer risk, and how we can modify our lives to help prevent a diagnosis of breast cancer.
While age, race, and genetics exert a significant influence on a women’s chance of developing breast cancer, diet is one of the critical aspects in the prevention of breast cancer. I’m very optimistic about a new study published September 14, 2015, in JAMA Internal Medicine, which looked at the effects of a Mediterranean diet on overall breast cancer risk. Researchers randomly assigned more than 4,200 women, ages 60 to 80, to eat either a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or with nuts or a low-fat control diet. Compared to the control diet group, the Mediterranean plus olive oil group had a 68 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer over a follow-up of about five years. Is there something in the olive oil? Well, the researchers don’t really know why this diet was so effective, but they speculate that there may be compounds in olive oil that could inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells. Maybe future research holds the key!
I have my own hypotheses as to why this diet has a preventative effect. Let’s examine the evidence:
- Women with the highest ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids have a 67% reduced risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet is high in omega 3 fats from fish, nuts, and seeds! (flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are also the most abundant sources of anticancer compounds known as lignans.)
- Studies have shown that increasing the intake of cabbage family vegetables or taking I3C or DIM as a dietary supplement significantly increases the conversion of estrogen from cancer-producing forms to non-toxic breakdown products. Vegetables common to the Mediterranean diet are broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and collard greens!
- Obesity is perhaps the most significant dietary factor as it carries with it at least a 30% increased risk for developing breast cancer. Obesity rates of people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet are some of the lowest in the world!
- Known dietary factors that may decrease the risk of breast cancer-fish, whole grains, soy and other legumes, cabbage, vegetables, nuts, and fruits. All of these foods are eaten in abundance when following the Mediterranean diet!
And no folks, the Mediterranean diet IS NOT pizza, pasta, gyros, falafel, lasagna, and long loaves of white bread!
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics