The Mediterranean diet is a traditional dietary pattern in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Spain, and Italy. First identified in the 1960s as “health-protecting,” this diet includes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, cereals, and legumes with limited alcohol consumption and low consumption of dairy and meat. I first encountered the cancer prevention potential of the Mediterranean diet when I worked at the Entekhab Cancer Control Center in Iran providing nutritional counselling to cancer patients and healthy people who were at risk of getting cancer. Since then, I started to read a lot about the Mediterranean diet and its role in cancer prevention.
This dietary pattern emphasizes daily consumption of whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and virgin olive oil. Fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products are recommended weekly while red meat and sweets should be limited to monthly use. Unsalted nuts are included, but are high in calories and should be consumed with attention to overall energy intake to avoid weight gain.
Key elements of Mediterranean diet
- Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains
- Use virgin olive oil or canola oil on salads and for preparing food
- Use legumes as a good source of protein
- Drink plenty of healthy beverages
- Be physically active
- Consume low-fat dairy products
- Consume fish and sea foods about twice a week
- Eat poultry and turkey
- Eat red meat and sweets less often
- Limit salt intake, use herbs and lime juice to flavour foods
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Limit sugar-sweetened beverages, such as juices and cola
How might the Mediterranean diet prevent cancer?
Following a Mediterranean diet is associated with decreased overall mortality because of increased antioxidant intake. This helps your body resist free radicals and oxidants. This way of eating can also help prevent cancer by:
- Reducing your body weight and improving blood lipids ;
- Significantly decreasing blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers;
- Significantly decreasing risk of dementia; and
- Increasing antioxidant intake, which has been shown to decrease DNA damage in prostate cancer patients.
Olive oil is one of most important components of the Mediterranean diet and evidence suggests that it may play a role in decreasing the risk of breast cancer. Other research shows that the Mediterranean diet is inversely associated with colorectal cancer risk.
Nutrition experts suggest making small changes to improve your health and decrease your disease risk (especially cancer). For example, increase your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, consume whole grains instead of refined grains, and choose protein from vegetable sources (like soy and beans) instead of animal sources (like meat or pork). Use low-fat dairy products and drink healthy beverages. For additional benefits, try adding physical activity to your daily routine, at least 30-45 minutes each day.
Need some help getting started with the Mediterranean diet? We walk you through a simple Greek salad in this video:
- Email a Dietitian (HealthLinkBC)
- What is the Mediterranean diet? (HealthLinkBC)
- A heart-healthy diet may also prevent cancer (American Institute for Cancer Research)
- Body weight and cancer prevention (World Cancer Research Fund)
Mediterranean Greek Salad (adapted from allrecipes.com)
- 3 cucumbers, sliced
- 3 cups diced roma tomatoes
- 1/2 red onion, sliced
- 1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
- 1/3 cup diced oil packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, 1 tablespoon oil reserved
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (optional)
- Salt or salt alternative and pepper to taste (optional)
- 1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese or feta cheese alternative (optional)
In a large salad bowl, toss together the cucumbers, roma tomatoes, red onion, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, reserved sun-dried tomato oil, and red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with feta cheese if desired. Chill until served.
Devita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S., Rosenberg, S.A. (2015). DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. (2015). USA: Wolters Kluwer Health.
Bamia C., Lagiou P., et al. (2013). Mediterranean diet and colorectal cancer risk: results from a European cohort. Eur J Epidemiol, 28(4), 317-28. doi: 10.1007/s10654-013-9795-x.
Aragón F., Perdigón G., de Moreno de LeBlanc, A. (2014). Modification in the diet can induce beneficial effects against breast cancer. World J Clin Oncol, 5(3), 455-64. doi: 10.5306/wjco.v5.i3.455.
Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. (2014). Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Int J Cancer, 35(8), 1884-97. doi: 10.1002/ijc.28824.