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5 Mediterranean Diet foods that help reduce cancer risk

Submitted by tracy.greene on

By Milette Siler, MBA-HC, RD, LD, CCMS, Oncology Culinary Dietitian at Moncrief Cancer Institute

The region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea is home to a wide range of cultures and traditions, including food patterns. For over 60 years, scientists have studied the commonalities (1) between these diets and the link to reduced rates of chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. (2) 

A Mediterranean pattern of eating includes a wide variety of colorful plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils, seeds, and beans, as well as fish and olive oil. Meat consumption is minimal as are sugar sweetened beverages. 

It is important to note that no single food or group of foods can protect against cancer. The good news is there are many ways to combine these ingredients into an eating pattern that not only reduces the risk of developing cancer but is also appealing to a wide variety of cultures and dietary preferences. Many of the foods emphasized for their benefits are affordable and can be obtained in local grocery stores or food pantries. 

Are you ready to try adding some of the Mediterranean Diet superstars? Here are five foods that offer unique flavors and powerful health benefits as well as some suggestions from our oncology culinary dietitian Milette Siler for how to enjoy them.

  1. Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans)

Benefits: Rich in protein and dietary fiber, chickpeas are good sources of prebiotics and resistant starch and can help promote gut health. Many studies suggest that diets rich in legumes are associated with  a reduction of risk of colorectal cancer, but more research is needed to make specific recommendations.

How to enjoy: Canned chickpeas are a simple staple to add to any cancer-fighting pantry. Sprinkle on top of a salad, blend into dips, or roast them for a crunchy snack. 

  1. Turnip greens

Benefits: Turnip greens, along with other dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, and spinach, are rich in iron and magnesium and are a good source of calcium. Turnip greens are also an excellent source of folate, which helps maintain healthy DNA and keep cancer promoting genes “turned off.” Regular consumption of dark leafy greens was associated with reduced rates of breast cancer (mainly ER- forms). (2)

How to enjoy: Turnip greens are a traditional staple in Spanish cuisine and are often sauteed with garlic, raisins, and pine nuts or generously seasoned with smoked paprika and garlic. Tear handfuls into a hearty stew or try in a smoothie.

  1. Sardines           

Benefits: Canned sardines, along with other canned fish such as herring, anchovies, and mackerel are high in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and vitamins B12 and D as well as calcium. Eating 1 to 2 servings of fatty fish such as sardines every week is associated with better cognitive health and reduces risk of dying from heart disease by up to 36%, according to an analysis of 20 studies. (3)

How to enjoy: Keep a few cans of sardines in your pantry. Sardines are very savory and can function as a “flavor fixer” for stews, sauces, and dressings, that need extra “oomph.” Combine a few chopped sardines with a can of drained diced tomatoes atop toasted bread slices to make a quick bruschetta appetizer or add to salad greens along with olives and your favorite vinaigrette.

  1. Garlic

Benefits: Onions, shallots, chives, leeks, and garlic are all allium vegetables, easily identified by their signature sulfurous smell. Garlic contain the phytonutrient allicin, which may help alleviate chronic inflammation. Studies for the benefits of garlic supplementation are mixed. For best benefit, use freshly minced, sliced, or crushed garlic in cooking.

How to enjoy: Slice the top off a garlic bulb and drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and your favorite herbs. Wrap in foil and roast in the oven until tender. Add minced raw garlic to your favorite salsa for an added kick or scrape a peeled clove of garlic on toast for a fragrant addition to pasta night.

  1. Seasonal berries

Colorful red, blue, or purple berries, such as raspberries, cherries, or blackberries, are in the flavonoid family and are associated with cardiovascular health, improved immune function, and cognitive health. Berries are rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C and dietary fiber. Additionally, a cup of berries provides 8 grams of dietary fiber. Choose berries that are in season for the best flavor and maximized phytonutrient benefits.

How to enjoy: Fresh berries are delicious but note that frozen berries or canned berries (without added sugars or syrups) are available anytime, can be stored longer, and have similar nutrition benefits. Enjoy mashed in a refreshing agua fresca or toss into a salad or bowl of oatmeal or yogurt. Pair with nuts for a delicious finish to a meal.

Experts agree that the best lifestyle recommendation for cancer risk reduction include regular exercise, stress management, and a diet that includes a wide variety of plant foods. Incorporating one or more of these five foods that align with Mediterranean diet research can offer many nourishing (and delicious) benefits.

(1) Martínez-González MÁ, Hershey MS, Zazpe I, Trichopoulou A. Transferability of the Mediterranean Diet to Non-Mediterranean Countries. What Is and What Is Not the Mediterranean Diet. Nutrients. 2017; 9(11):1226.

(2) Dinu, M., Pagliai, G., Casini, A. et al. Mediterranean diet and multiple health outcomes: an umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised trials. Eur J Clin Nutr 72, 30–43 (2018).

(3) Jayedi A, Shab-Bidar S, Eimeri S, Djafarian K. Fish consumption and risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective observational studies. Public Health Nutr. 2018 May;21(7):1297-1306. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017003834. Epub 2018 Jan 10. PMID: 29317009; PMCID: PMC10261309.