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Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet

The “Mediterranean diet” represents the food consumed in about 16 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Accumulating evidence points to the many health benefits conferred by this diet.

The diet consists of olive oil rich in monounsaturated fats, nuts, and fish, all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, plus antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. It has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and the incidence of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

According to the American Heart Association, in addition to consuming a healthy diet and engaging in physical activity, social networks are also essential for disease prevention.  

—Barrie Cassileth, PhD

ALSO KNOWN AS: Omega diet

SUMMARY: The Mediterranean diet, which includes food consumed in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, has gained popularity in the United States over the past decade. Consisting of a variety of fruits and vegetables, cereals, legumes, poultry, fish, nuts, olive oil, and moderate amounts of red wine, the Mediterranean diet is an established dietary approach for the prevention of many diseases, including heart disease and cancer. It is low in saturated fat but high in monounsaturated fat (found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados) and polyunsaturated fat (found in fish such as ­salmon, tuna, sardines, and trout). Little red meat is eaten in the Mediterranean diet.

Epidemiologic data indicate that over 90% of type 2 diabetes, 80% of coronary heart disease, and 70% of stroke can be avoided by adopting healthful food choices that model the traditional Mediterranean diet.[1]

A few clinical trials have also shown that Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease,[2,3] type 2 diabetes,[3] and postmenopausal breast cancer.[4] Further, a meta-analysis of 12 studies suggests a strong association between greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet and a significant reduction in risk of overall mortality, cancer incidence and mortality, and incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.[5]

The health benefits of the diet are attributed to the synergistic interactions between the nutrients, not to a single nutrient.[5]

CONTRAINDICATIONS: Some ingredients of the Mediterranean diet may not be appropriate for those with multiple food allergies/intolerances or gastrointestinal difficulties. Cancer patients may have special nutritional needs and should consult a dietician before changing their diet.

Data on the risks and benefits of low to moderate use of alcohol are mixed. The polyphenol compounds catechin and resveratrol that are present in red wine are associated with anticancer properties. However, recent data from a large epidemiologic study indicate that low to moderate alcohol consumption may increase the risk of certain cancers in women.[6] More study is needed to determine whether an increased cancer risk associated with low to moderate drinking may be offset by cardiovascular benefits. Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. A drink is defined as 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of liquor.

Take Home Points
• The Mediterranean diet, characterized by high intake of fruits and vegetables, cereals, legumes, poultry, fish, nuts, olive oil, and moderate amounts of red wine, is recommended for cancer prevention.

• Adherence to Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of several diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

• Patients with food allergies and gastrointestinal problems, as well as those with cancer, should consult a dietician before changing their diets.

For additional information visit the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Integrative Medicine Service website, “About Herbs” at http://www.mskcc.org/AboutHerbs.

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