BLOG: Benefits of a Mediterranean diet in breast cancer | Breast Cancer UK

BLOG: Benefits of a Mediterranean diet in breast cancer

Published 4 Aug 2017

Modern medicine has tended to recommend a pill for every ill, however there is a growing movement within the medical profession, and supported by research, that food may have the power to prevent the most serious of conditions including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

We all know that prevention is better than the cure. Our friends at Viridian Nutrition have highlighted evidence that shows how modifications to diet and lifestyle can positively affect an individual’s health.

Breast cancer is an increasing concern, since the 1990s incidence rates have risen by approximately 19% in the UK, with mortality exceeding 11,433 in 2014, 99% female (Cancer Research UK). There are many risk factors associated with breast cancer including genetics, environmental factors, endocrine hormones and menopausal status. Whilst most of these factors are largely unchangeable, research is lately identifying a relationship between the risk of developing breast cancer, and an individual’s diet, with the hope of finding an adjustable lifestyle component that could help reduce risk of developing the disease.

It is thought that the Westernised diet, which is infamously rich in dairy, processed meats and refined sugars, could play a role in the development of cancer risk. However, evidence for an association with breast cancer still remains inconclusive. On the other hand, epidemiological studies have identified a risk-reducing effect for those following a healthy balanced diet, specifically the Mediterranean diet.

Following a Mediterranean diet

A 2014 observational study, found that following a Westernised diet, correlated with a higher risk of developing or progressing breast cancer. In contrast, individuals in the higher quartile of Mediterranean diet adherence had a 56% lower risk, compared to those in the lower adherence category, and this protective effect was stronger for triple negative tumours (68%) (1).

Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet comprises high quality fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil, legumes, nuts and seeds and garlic. With moderate intake of alcohol (wine), and little-to-no red meat or dairy consumption. These diet choices provide a favourable balance of fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. 

Recent control trials have put the diet to the test. In 2015, a Spanish intervention investigated the effects of women following either a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional extra virgin olive oil, Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, or a control low fat diet (2).

This long-term randomised trial (over four years) found that:

  • Women following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional extra virgin olive oil showed a 62% relatively lower risk of breast cancer incidence, compared to the control diet.
  • Women following a Mediterranean diet supplementing with additional nuts had a non-significant risk reduction.
  • The two Mediterranean diet interventions had a combined relative risk of 51%.

The study observed that a higher consumption of extra virgin oil (> 15% of total energy intake) could be instrumental for obtaining this significant protection. Olive oil contains high levels of polyphenols which have been shown in other research to offer powerful antioxidant properties.

Additional research has focused on the influence the Mediterranean diet has on breast cancer reoccurrence. After a three year follow up, women who had previously been treated for early breast cancer and were following a Mediterranean diet compared to their standard diet, were significantly less likely to relapse. Eleven patients from the standard diet group had a breast cancer recurrence during the study, whilst there were no new cases of breast cancer in the Mediterranean diet group[iii]. 

The case for a Mediterranean diet

The European Prospective Investigation in to Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study concluded that a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, with a greater reduction in hormone receptor-negative tumours. The diet provides an abundance of plant-based foods rich in flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin C and E, which play an important role in neutralising free radicals and preventing DNA damage(4).

With evidence suggesting that our diet could be a modifiable risk factor for the development of cancer, it is important to change eating habits towards a healthier outlook.  Some easy take away tips:

  • Replace all fats with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  • Include sauces made from tomatoes cooked with garlic and rosemary.
  • Reduce red meat consumption and eliminate processed meats.
  • Cook at lower temperatures and add liquid to stew food.
  • Use small amounts of good quality meats to flavour legumes or soups (for meat dominant eaters).
  • Replace simple carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, refined sugars, milk) with complex carbohydrates (whole-grains, rolled oats, lentils, chickpeas).
  • Nourish your diet with a wide variety of fresh organic vegetables and fruits, raw is best.

Author: Katie Bell, MSc BSc, nutritionist and biochemist, is a Technical Advisor at Viridian Nutrition.

Viridian Nutrition is the leading supplier of food supplements to specialist independent health food stores, For information about personalised solutions visit



1. Castelló, A et al. "Spanish Mediterranean Diet And Other Dietary Patterns And Breast Cancer Risk: Case–Control Epigeicam Study." British Journal of Cancer 111.7 (2014): 1454-1462. Web.

2. Toledo, Estefanía et al. "Mediterranean Diet And Invasive Breast Cancer Risk Among Women At High Cardiovascular Risk In The PREDIMED Trial." JAMA Internal Medicine 175.11 (2015): 1752. Web.

3. Biasini, C. et al. "A05effect Of Mediterranean Diet On The Prevalence Of Breast Cancer Relapse: Preliminary Results Of The “SETA PROJECT”." Annals of Oncology 26. suppl 6 (2015): vi4.2-vi4. Web.

4. Buckland, G et al. "Adherence To The Mediterranean Diet And Risk Of Breast Cancer In The European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer And Nutrition Cohort Study." International Journal of Cancer 132.12 (2012): 2918-2927. Print.

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