Bounty of the Mediterranean:
U-M researcher examines diet's potential for preventing cancer
Researchers have long noted that populations living along the Mediterranean Sea
have lower risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. The lower risk may be linked to
the regional diet -- one high in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, fish and olive oil. To
better understand the potential benefits of a Mediterranean diet, Zora Djuric, Ph.D., a research professor of family medicine at
the University of Michigan Medical School, has developed a study to examine the
role of diet in preventing colon cancer. We talked with her to learn more about
Zora Djuric, Ph.D., is studying the Mediterranean diet and its
potential for preventing cancer.
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Q: What is it about the
Mediterranean diet that makes
it a good candidate for
preventing colon cancer?
A: The various components of the diet
seem to be a preventative for cancer. For example, increased fish intake and increased intake of certain vegetables may
have a beneficial effect. It's also the large variety of fruits and vegetables that are consumed in a Mediterranean diet.
Different types of fruits and vegetables have different nutritional compounds, or phytochemicals, in them.
Q: It seems we read regularly
about new research related to phytochemicals, such as omega-3 fatty acids or beta
carotene, in food. Which ones
A: The Healthy People 2010 diet calls for
eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and
whole grains. It moderates fat intake and
limits saturated fat. The Mediterranean diet
favors monounsaturated fats from olive oil,
nuts and fatty plant-based foods, such as
olives. It also requires whole grains; low-fat
protein, such as poultry, fish and legumes;
and seven to nine servings from two fruit
categories and six vegetable categories to
Q: How well have study
participants been able to
follow the diets?
A: We were pleased that people were able
to do it. It sounds complicated - and it
does take time to figure out how to eat
everything -- but that's why we offer dietary
counseling to ensure that the eating plans
are working. People seem to like the
Mediterranean diet, maybe because of the
higher fat intake. It's very palatable, and
that's really important. You can dream up
the best diet, but if no one wants to eat it,
it's not going to prevent cancer.
Q: Do you have other Mediterranean
diet studies planned?
A: Yes, we're writing a grant now to study
the diet's effect in breast cancer survivors. People with other types of cancer tend
to lose weight, but not those with breast cancer -- and we don't know why. An important goal of that study will be to look
at preventing body fat gain. An earlier pilot study we conducted among women in 2007
seemed to indicate that this diet may be helpful. The women who ate a Mediterranean
diet decreased the amount of polyunsaturated fat they ate by 50% while increasing monounsaturated fats by the
same amount. They also ate twice as many fruits and vegetables, doubling their blood
levels of carotenoids.
Q: So the Mediterranean diet
could be beneficial for survivorship
as well as prevention?
A: Absolutely. Unfortunately, research has
shown that survivors tend to have more health problems than those who haven't had cancer. The Mediterranean diet seems
to lower the risk for several diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can be difficult to change the
way you eat, since a lot more is wrapped up in food than health: It's about customs and values and feeding ourselves emotionally.
But hopefully people will find it worthwhile, particularly if it tastes good.
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