The Care and Feeding of Our Breasts: Series Post 2 of 2

October 2, 2015

Could it be that the key to minimizing our risk of breast cancer begins in the kitchen?

While I have talked about this for years, research is beginning to prove just that. We can eat our way to the lowest risk of breast cancer, deliciously. Remembering that genetics play a role in our risk, we can take matters into our own hands and protect our breasts with the foods we choose to eat.

A small study done in Spain, on women who consumed a Mediterranean diet rich on olive oil, veggies, whole grains and fruit, came to the conclusion that these women were less likely to develop breast cancer over the next five years than women consuming a low-fat diet.

Previous studies have suggested an overall lower cancer risk in Mediterranean regions where traditional diets were consumed but it was never clear as to how that particular diet worked its magic.

What is it about the Mediterranean diet that makes it so healthy for humans? This traditional style of eating is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. It features fish as a lean form of protein in small amounts (over red meat, dairy foods and poultry). Red wine is consumed regularly but in moderate amounts. It’s a largely plant-based style of eating with the focus on fresh, seasonal, whole, unprocessed foods. Sound familiar?

Extensive research shows that the benefits of a Mediterranean-style eating pattern include weight loss, better control of blood glucose (sugar) levels, and reduced levels of inflammation which is a risk factor for heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published in JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Internal Medicine has found that women who eat this very healthy diet may also benefit when it comes to breast cancer risk and prevention.

A bit of back story. The clinical trial, known as PREDIMED, was originally designed to assess the cardiovascular benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, or a regular low-fat diet.

The study followed about 7,500 people for five years, resulting in compelling evidence that people who ate either type of Mediterranean diet had better heart health than their counterparts who weren't.

Here’s where it gets interesting for breast cancer. The study’s main focus was cardiovascular disease, but researchers also tracked the incidence of five types of cancer, including breast cancer. Of the 4,282 women who participated in the trial, there were 35 confirmed cases of invasive breast cancer. (In situ, or Stage 0 breast cancer were not tracked.)

The risk of being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer was highest for women who were advised to eat less fat, compared to a diagnosis rate for women who were on the Mediterranean diet with extra nuts and was the lowest for women who were on the Mediterranean diet with additional extra virgin olive oil.

After accounting for a variety of factors including the age, body mass index, exercise and drinking habits of the women, breast cancer risk was 68% lower for the extra virgin olive oil group compared with the low-fat group. The women who followed the Mediterranean diet with extra servings of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds were about 40% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than the women on a low-fat diet.

Researchers are calling for more research and more study to see why women eating a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil could reduce the risk of breast cancer so significantly. Let’s take a look at this, shall we?

There are lots of reasons that extra virgin olive oil could be a significant cancer-fighter. All we know about this traditional food leads to that conclusion. It’s rich in oleic acid, a substance that has been shown to kill breast cancer cells in lab experiments. It’s also rich in squalene, a compound with antioxidant effects on breast cells. Extra virgin olive oil also contains polyphenols including, oleocanthal, found to block the spread of breast cancer cells, oleuropein which induces breast cancer cells to self-destruct, hydroxytyrosol which counteracts damage to breast cells and lignans which are associated with a reduced cancer risk. Whew!

But is it just the olive oil that’s the key here?

If we examine the Mediterranean diet as a whole, there are lots of factors that would contribute to a reduced risk of breast cancer, with extra virgin olive oil as icing on the cake, so to speak.

A diet rich in whole grains and vegetables, particularly cruciferous veggies would be an enormous factor in reducing cancer risk. Consumption of beans as the main source of protein, while limiting the intake of dairy foods limits women’s exposure to saturated fat, reducing breast cancer risk, but also limits exposure to estrogen, found in many dairy foods, a key factor in increased cancer risk, (as discussed in my previous article. )

While extra virgin olive oil brings many valuable nutrients to our health, in this case, I think that placing our focus solely on this one ingredient is misguided. Not one to denigrate olive oil and its virtues, I would venture to say this is a “package deal,” with benefits to human health stemming from the regular consumption of whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit and minimizing processed junk foods and animal protein.

We women would have nothing to lose by eating more like the people in the Mediterranean–except unwanted weight and a high risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. It’s healthy and completely delicious. The foods are fresh and easy to prepare.

As I have always said, the key to health begins in the kitchen. What we choose to eat is the foundation upon which we build our health.

Off you go now…drizzle some olive oil on something and enjoy.