Mediterranean diet cuts cancer risk

Adopting just two aspects of the Mediterranean diet can cut the risk of developing cancer by 12 per cent - research published in the British Journal of Cancer* today (Wednesday) reveals.

Consuming more good fats - like those found in olive oil - than bad fats - like those found in chips, biscuits and cakes - had the greatest effect, reducing cancer risk by nine per cent. It also showed that making any two changes to your diet, such as eating more peas, beans and lentils and less meat could cut cancer risk by 12 per cent.

These findings help show how making a few simple changes to our diet over time can reduce the risk of cancer.

In the largest study in a Mediterranean population to look at cancer risk in relation to diet, researchers monitored the detailed dietary records of over 26,000 Greek men and women, over a period of eight years.

Lead author Dr Dimitrios Trichopoulos, professor of cancer prevention and epidemiology at Harvard University, said: "Our results show just how important diet is in cancer risk.

"Of the 26,000 people we studied, those who closely followed a traditional Mediterranean diet were overall less likely to develop cancer.

"Although eating more of one food group alone didn't significantly change a person's risk of cancer, adjusting one's overall dietary habits towards the traditional Mediterranean pattern had an important effect."

The study was conducted as a part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and nutrition (EPIC). EPIC is a unique, ongoing study looking at dietary habits and other biological and lifestyle characteristics of more than half a million people in Europe before a diagnosis of cancer and other chronic diseases.

The researchers collected information from interviewer-administered questionnaires and used a 9-point scale** to describe how well a participant's diet adhered to the traditional Mediterranean pattern.

Food groups were classified as good and protective against cancer, or bad and increasing cancer risk, based on the latest research. Each person was given a score of one if they consumed lots of "good" foods or had a low consumption of "bad" foods. They scored zero for a high consumption of "bad" foods or low consumption of "good" foods.

The researchers found that people who more closely followed a traditional Mediterranean diet had a lower incidence of cancer. Importantly, lower risk wasn't only seen by completely adopting the traditional Mediterranean diet, but closer conformity to it also reduced the participants' cancer risk. And the more changes made, the bigger the effect.

Cancer Research UK's director of health information, Sara Hiom, said: "This is an important study that helps us to understand more about the simple changes a person can make to their diet to reduce their risk of cancer and improve overall health.

"Although we know that unhealthy diets generally and being overweight are important risk factors for a number of cancers - the link between individual foods or food types and cancer has been less clear.

"This research highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy balanced diet to reduce your risk of cancer. It shows that there are a number of things you can do, and that there is no one 'superfood' that can stop you developing the disease."


*Conformity to traditional Mediterranean diet and cancer incidence: the Greek EPIC cohort. British Journal of Cancer. 2008. 99(1).

  • ** The nine food group measures are
  • high monounsaturated to saturated fat intake
  • high consumption of fruits
  • high consumption of vegetables
  • high consumption of legumes (peas, beans, lentils)
  • high consumption of cereals
  • moderate-to-high consumption of fish
  • low consumption of meat products
  • low-to-moderate consumption of milk and dairy products
  • moderate consumption of ethanol, mostly in the form of wine at meals

If a person's diet was higher than the average Greek population's in a good food group, they scored one. If their diet was lower than average in a bad food group, they scored one.

Other risk factors, such as smoking and BMI, were controlled for in this study.

Our diet influences our risk of many cancers, including cancers of the bowel, stomach, mouth, foodpipe and breast.

You can reduce your cancer risk by eating a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fibre, fruit and vegetables, and low in red and processed meat and saturated fat. Currently, less than a quarter of people in the UK aged 19-64 eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

About the British Journal of Cancer (BJC)

The BJC is owned by the charity Cancer Research UK and its mission is to encourage communication of the very best cancer research from laboratories and clinics in all countries. Broad coverage, its editorial independence and consistent high standards have made BJC one of the world's premier general cancer journals.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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