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Another Powerful Reason to Eat Like the Greeks

September 15, 2015

Breast cancer is, by far, the most common cancer among women, affecting one in eight U.S. women—12 percent of the American female population—directly. This year, 231,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed, and nearly 41,000 women will die from the disease.

These statistics are scary, for sure, but we’re learning more about how women’s diets can contribute to a higher level of overall health and lower their risk of developing breast cancer. Specifically, eating more olive oil-rich, Mediterranean-style foods may lessen the likelihood that a woman develops breast cancer, according to the preliminary results of a study published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.

Researchers split female participants into three groups: one group followed a low-fat diet for nearly five years, one group followed an olive oil-heavy Mediterranean diet, and one group followed a nut-heavy Mediterranean diet. The women that followed the Mediterranean diets had a 68 percent lower risk of breast cancer after 4.8 years.

Much attention has been given in recent years to the diet of residents of the Mediterranean world, which emphasizes healthy fats such as olive oil, lean proteins, and unprocessed carbohydrates like whole grains, and fresh produce, but limits red meat, dairy, or sugar. The diet has been connected to more rapid weight loss, as well as a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease.

The JAMA study is not the first to suggest that a Mediterranean diet can specifically benefit women. A notable longitudinal study beginning in the 1980s tracked more than 10,000 women who were, at that time, in their 50s or 60s and followed a Mediterranean diet. Fifteen years later, these women were 40 percent more likely to have lived past the age of 70 with no cognitive or physical ailments.

Exactly how to follow the Mediterranean diet depends on which country’s philosophy you’re following, as Greeks eat differently from the French, Spanish, and Italians. For general guidance, look no further than Oldways’ Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.

“Because the Mediterranean diet is based on food groups that are quite common or easy to find, people around the world could easily adopt this dietary pattern and help protect themselves against heart disease with very little cost,” said Ekavi Georgousopoulou, who was part of a Greek research team that earlier this year found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet were almost half as likely to develop heart disease.

And hey, that’s more than enough reason to convince me to roast some salmon or sea bass with olive oil for dinner tonight.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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