I have a few passions in life–two of which are taking care of cancer patients and cooking Mediterranean-style cuisine! This blog will not directly be about either of those passions, but instead will discuss how EVOO may help reduce the risk of breast cancer.
In fact, my interest in EVOO has recently grown since I just finished a wonderful book, The 7 Wonders of Olive Oil–by Alice Alech and Cecile Le Galliard. As noted in earlier blogs, there is ample data that the Mediterranean diet (MeDiet) decreases the risk of chronic diseases, two of which are cancer and heart disease. Although I could talk for days on the reasons for this, basically it boils down to the high intake of vegetables, fruits, seeds/nuts, spices, and EVOO. The likely reason that the MeDiet decreases cancer risk is the complex combination of bioactive substances known as phytonutrients — chemicals that possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-proliferative effects that help prevent cell and DNA damage through complex mechanisms.
In regards to cancer, one group of phytonutrients known collectively as polyphenols, has been shown in numerous studies to decrease cancer cell growth by reducing or blocking numerous “pathways” that allow a cancer cell to grow and spread (metastasize). It so happens that polyphenols (there are lots of these with extremely long names!) are abundant in EVOO and likely are one reason EVOO decreases risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer by slowing inflammation—which is involved in both diseases. This is overly simplistic, but I hope it gets the point across.
Anyhow the MeDiet may help modestly decrease the risk of developing breast cancer, which has been shown in several studies, although this is not without controversy. So, I will keep this blog to the point and highlight a fascinating article from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Internal Medicine published by Estefania Toledo, MD, MPH, PhD and colleagues in November 2015 that showed EVOO seems to decrease breast cancer risk.
Dr. Toledo’s paper specifically looked at women who were part of a large randomized, single-blind controlled study in Spain known as the PREDIMED study. The study included 4282 women aged 60-80 who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease, but had no history of breast cancer. All of the women were to eat a typical MeDiet but were then randomly placed into one of three groups: a control MeDiet, a MeDiet supplemented with EVOO and a MeDiet supplemented with mixed nuts, to be consumed daily.
During the 4.8 year-long study, dieticians met with participants individually, and in groups, and participants answered questions on adherence to the MeDiet, as well as intake of EVOO and nuts, if they were not in the control group. The researchers then followed patients for breast cancer development . Overall, women in the MeDiet /EVOO group had a 62% lower risk of getting breast cancer compared to the control group (the MeDiet alone). The MeDiet/nuts group had a 38% lower risk of getting breast cancer compared to the MeDiet alone group. Interestingly, the women in the EVOO group that had the highest EVOO intake during the study period, showed the lowest overall risk compared to those with the lowest intake in the EVOO group—their risk was reduced by 82%! It is noteworthy that the three groups were well balanced in regards to age, smoking status, cardiac risk factors, family history of cancer, age at menopause, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and adherence to the MeDiet.
The authors go on to say that to achieve these benefits, EVOO should be at least 15% of total daily energy intake. Keep in mind that since there are significant calories in EVOO, this should be coupled with an overall healthy diet and exercise. But, in my opinion, the high caloric content of EVOO should NOT make one shy away from this healthy food.
This study does not prove that EVOO will prevent all breast cancers from developing, but simply adds to the data supporting EVOO as a healthy food that should be staple in our diets. Since EVOO contains numerous phytonutrients (e.g., squalene, oleuropein, oleocanthal, hydroxytyrosol, lignans) that exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative, antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects, it is not a huge surprise that regular consumption of this great food may prevent some cancers.
So, start by adding EVOO to your dishes today and use as a substitute for butter! Or fill a butter dish with EVOO on and use PhytoGrind on top for a great dip.
Mark A. Marinella, MD, FACP