Mediterranean diet may reduce breast cancer risk

A preliminary study in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that older women in Spain who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet enhanced with extra-virgin olive oil were less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

The breast cancer study was bootstrapped onto a landmark clinical trial in Spain called Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED).  In 2013, the first results from this study established that people who ate a Mediterranean diet — rich in extra-virgin olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes,— were 30% less likely to have heart attacks or strokes or to die from heart-related causes, compared with people who were just told to eat less fat.

But the PREDIMED researchers were not done. They also kept track of how many women were diagnosed with breast cancer during the study period so they could see if the rates were different across three different groups—women who followed the diet plus extra servings of olive oil, women who followed the diet plus extra servings of nuts, and women who were simply advised to reduce fat intake. They followed about 4,300 women ages 60 to 80.

Out of a total of 35 breast cancers diagnosed during the study period, there were 62% fewer cancers in the women who ate the olive-oil–enhanced diet, compared with women just told to cut their fat intake. The rate of breast cancer in women who ate the Mediterranean diet plus extra servings of nuts was not statistically different from that in the women told to reduce fat intake. Based on the study’s numbers, in a group of 1,000 women who eat a Mediterranean-style diet with extra olive oil for 10 years, 14 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer. A similar group of women who only cut fat from their diet without eating in the Mediterranean style would see 29 cases, meaning 15 additional breast cancers over a decade in every 1,000 women.

That’s great news — but it isn’t definite proof that eating Mediterranean prevents breast cancer. The study’s conclusions are based on just 35 cases of breast cancer. The small numbers leave the study more vulnerable to factors besides diet that could have skewed the math.

A healthy diet is only one influence of lifestyle on the risk of breast cancer. The study says a healthy diet may be very important — plus you need to exercise, plus you need to lose weight. Fortunately, we know that the Mediterranean diet prevents heart disease and reduce the risk of dementia. The evidence for whether it fights breast cancer may be preliminary, but what’s the downside of trying it?

Thanks for reading.

Journal Reference: Anita Slomski, Mediterranean Diet With Olive Oil May Reduce Breast Cancer Risk JAMA. 2015; 314(20) : 2122. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.15119

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