by Skye Anderson
The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan that gained popularity worldwide in the 1990s. Although the very first study mentioning its health benefits was published in 1978, the Mediterranean diet didn’t attract public attention until it began featuring in books and other mainstream media as a diet that promotes weight loss.
Today, the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest — if not THE healthiest — diets in the world. Many studies have emerged promoting the health benefits of this eating pattern, which include, above all things, a longer lifespan. The longevity enjoyed by people who follow this eating pattern is attributed by researchers to a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
In a recent article written by Italian researchers, they reviewed published literature about the Mediterranean diet and how it could help reduce the risk of certain cancers. Given the wide variety of foods associated with the Mediterranean diet, the researchers specifically addressed the lack of current information about which components of the diet can help prevent the development of cancer.
Facts about the Mediterranean diet
Back in the 1950s, researchers noticed that blood cholesterol levels and heart attack rates varied widely between countries with different diets. Formal studies conducted in Finland, Greece and Italy, on the other hand, reported that certain foods and eating patterns may have a favorable effect on disease rates. These findings convinced a physiologist from Minnesota named Ancel Keys to conduct a large study now known as The Seven Countries Study.
The Seven Countries Study was built on the assumption that the physical characteristics and lifestyles of different populations, particularly the amount of fat in their diet and their blood cholesterol levels, have a huge impact on their risk of coronary heart disease. To explore these associations, Keys brought together researchers from all over the world. Their collaborative effort involved populations in countries with traditional eating patterns and lifestyles, such as Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the former Yugoslavia and the United States.
One of the most significant findings reported by The Seven Countries Study was the existence of dietary patterns that contributed to good health and long life. Keys and his colleagues reported that diets prevalent in the Mediterranean as well as in Japan in the 1960s were not only associated with low rates of coronary heart disease but also of all-cause mortality. In addition, they noted that together with a healthy lifestyle, which included sufficient physical activity, no smoking and only moderate alcohol consumption, this healthy diet, now known as the Mediterranean diet, also delayed cognitive decline and decreased the risk of depression among the elderly.
After decades of studying the Mediterranean diet and its benefits, modern researchers have concluded that there is no one right way of following this eating pattern. There are, however, certain foods that should be more prominent in meals and foods that should be avoided or eaten in very limited amounts. Here are the foods that should be included in a Mediterranean diet:
– Fresh fruits and vegetables
– Whole grains
– Fish and other seafood
– Extra-virgin olive oil
Foods that should be eaten in moderation include poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt. A glass of red wine a day is considered acceptable. Red meat, on the other hand, should only be eaten occasionally.
Foods that have no place in the Mediterranean diet include the following:
– Refined grains like white bread and pasta made from refined wheat
– Refined oils live canola oil and cottonseed oil
– Processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and bacon
– Sugar-laden foods like ice cream, candies, pastries and sodas
– Highly processed foods that contain trans fats
Following the Mediterranean diet can lower your risk of certain cancers
For their review, the researchers conducted a thorough analysis of studies published within the last 10 years on the Mediterranean diet and its impact on cancer risk. They noted that the combination of foods included in this eating plan, as well as their abundance of essential nutrients and active plant components, are what’s responsible for the Mediterranean diet’s numerous health benefits.
According to multiple studies, adhering to a Mediterranean diet is one of the best ways to protect yourself against cancer. The Italian researchers found that high intake of olive oil, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, can greatly lower cancer risk because they are rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. These beneficial components can fight inflammation-causing oxidative stress, which is linked to the onset of different cancers, such as those of the breast, lungs, prostate, stomach, bladder, ovaries, head and neck, biliary tract, rectum and colon.
“Given its protective effects in reducing oxidative and inflammatory processes … and [preventing] DNA [damage], [cancer] cell proliferation and survival, angiogenesis, [inflammation] and [cancer] metastasis, the Mediterranean diet is … a powerful and manageable method [that can] fight cancer,” the researchers concluded in their report, which appeared in the journal Nutrients.
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet include not just better heart health, but also protection from life-threatening diseases like cancer. These protective effects are thanks to plant-based foods, which are excellent sources of beneficial plant nutrients. These phytonutrients include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that can protect cells and DNA from damage caused by harmful free radicals. Research suggests that oxidative damage to both triggers the development of cancer.