According to the American Cancer Society, minorities get colorectal cancer (CRC) more often than other groups. A diet low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains may reduce the risk for CRC.  Diet? Which diet? This is where confusion sets in and where nurses can help.  Previous studies have shown that just recommending an increase in fruits, vegetables and whole grains does not work. Nurses can give an evidence-based specific recommendation on the type of diet that is low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet that is low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown can reduce the risk for CRC by up to 14%.

What is the Mediterranean diet? According to Oldways Preservation and Trust, it includes:

  • Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans
  • Herbs, spices, nuts
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil
  • Fish and seafood are typically eaten at least twice a week
  • Dairy foods like yogurt and traditional cheeses
  • Eggs and poultry (chicken, duck)
  • Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, mutton, goat) and sweets are rarely eaten
  • Water and red wine (in moderation, for those who drink)

Many of the foods that comprise the Mediterranean diet are mainstays of the diets of other cultures. For example, kale, greens, and collards that can be part of an African American diet are part of the Mediterranean diet. Chickpeas, polenta, and chilies that can be part of a Hispanic diet are part of the Mediterranean diet. Having foods that are already part of your patient’s diet may make the transition to the Mediterranean diet a bit easier.

Another benefit of the Mediterranean diet is that is also a heart healthy diet. The diet has been shown to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is “bad” cholesterol. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is also associated with a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and a reduced risk of breast cancer among women who used extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts in their diet.

Finally, a foundation of the Mediterranean diet is activity and social connections. Enjoying meals and being active with friends and family are important to staying healthy and fully recouping the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is a great way to reduce colorectal cancer risk while improving heart health. As a nurse, knowing about the Mediterranean diet, its benefits, and how it is similar to your patient’s current diet can be a way to increase the likelihood that you can help your patient get on the path to great health.

Kelly Brittain, PhD, RN

Kelly Brittain, PhD, RN, is an Associate Professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. She teaches Public Health Nursing and Scholarship for Practice for undergraduate nursing students. Dr. Brittain's area of interest is community-based strategies to improve health promotion and risk reduction.

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