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Cancer and Mediterranean Dietary Traditions

The incidence of cancer overall in Mediterranean countries is lower than in Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This is mostly accounted for by the lower incidence among Mediterranean countries of cancer of the large bowel, breast, endometrium, and prostate. These forms of cancer have been linked to dietary factors, particularly low consumption of vegetables and fruit, and to a certain extent, high consumption of meat.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of foods of plant origin, relatively low consumption of red meat, and high consumption of olive oil, which in several studies has been reported to be more beneficial against cancer than other forms of added lipids. By taking into account the established or presumed nutritional causation of major forms of cancer and the composition of the traditional Mediterranean diet, estimates can be derived concerning the fraction of cancer occurrence in highly developed Western countries that could be attributed to their diets in comparison with the healthy traditional Mediterranean diet.

Although estimates can only be crude, it can be calculated that up to 25% of the incidence of colorectal cancer, ~15% of the incidence of breast cancer, and ~10% of the incidence of prostate, pancreas, and endometrial cancer could be prevented if the populations of highly developed Western countries could shift to the traditional healthy Mediterranean diet.