The benefits of olive oil and what research reveals about cancer

Some early research suggests that olive oil may do more than protect the heart; it could guard against certain cancers, too.

Here is the research:

  • In the mid 1980s, a long-term study comparing rates of cardiovascular disease in seven countries revealed that heart attacks were relatively uncommon in countries where the people consumed lots of olive oil, including Italy and Greece.
  • They also made another intriguing observation:
  • Overall cancer rates were lower in that sunny region than in most Western countries.
  • In particular, the women of Greece developed breast cancer about one-third as often as women in the United States.

Some scientists suspected that a diet rich in olive oil was the secret. The olive oil theory didn't make sense to some skeptics. After all, population studies suggest that women who eat a lot of fat increase their risk of breast cancer fivefold.

Yet some intriguing evidence suggests that the monounsaturated fat in olive oil is a cancer fighter.

  • One  study of nearly 2,400 Greek women found that those who consumed olive oil at least twice a day had a 25 percent reduced risk of breast cancer.
  • Another study found that women on the Canary Islands who consumed slightly less than 10 millilitres (two teaspoons) of olive oil daily cut their breast cancer risk by even more — 73 percent.

Although it's still not clear whether olive oil protects against breast cancer, scientists have uncovered some compelling evidence to suggest that some women may benefit. One-fifth to one-quarter of breast cancer patients carry too many copies of a gene known as HER2. As a result, they tend to develop aggressive, hard-to-treat tumours.

  • Lab studies by Spanish researchers have shown that the oleic acid in olive oil reduces the expression, or activity, of HER2 by up to 46 percent.
  • It also appears to enhance the effectiveness of trastuzumab (Herceptin), a breast cancer drug that blocks the expression of HER2.

There are so many variables and it is difficult to know for sure, but you can make informed decisions when you have access to the facts. Those decisions are personal and based on your individual needs.

Always know that talking with your doctor is an important step in making sure you make the decisions that are right for you.

The benefits of olive oil and what research reveals about cancer
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