Everywhere you turn you hear about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It's been associated with lower rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other serious diseases. Now, studies suggest it might even provide protection against skin cancer.

The Mediterranean Diet consists of lots of fish as the main protein source, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains and almost no processed foods. Olive oil is used liberally and red wine is poured often. It makes sense from what we know about nutrition that this diet would boost health and prevent illness. Studies indicate that people who live in Mediterranean cultures and those who eat the foods commonly consumed there enjoy healthier, longer lives.

Mediterranean Diet and Skin Cancer

Skin cancer, specifically melanoma, has been one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in Caucasian populations over the past several decades, but there are dramatic variations in where those cancers occur:

  • In the U.S., there are about 20 cases of skin cancer for every 100,000 residents
  • In Australia it's 50 per 100,000 residents
  • In Scandinavia, 9 to 22 cases per 100,000 residents
  • In Mediterranean countries there are only about 3 to 11 cases per 100,000 residents

That last figure has led doctors and scientists to wonder if it's the diet that's preventing these potentially deadly skin cancers to occur.

What the Research Says About the Protective Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

A hospital-based case control study on cutaneous melanoma at a hospital for skin diseases in the Lazio Region of Italy found that regularly eating fresh herbs, citrus fruits, carrots, cruciferous and dark green vegetables and high consumption of fatty fish and shellfish provide protection against cutaneous melanoma. In fact, it decreased the risk of developing this skin cancer by about half.

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2008, involved 652 people, including 304 melanoma cases and 305 controls (patients with no skin cancer) with an average age of between 51 and 53 years. Researchers interviewed participants using a structured questionnaire and then examined for pigmented lesions. The questionnaire included information on socio-demographic characteristics, personal medical history, smoking habits, phenotypic traits (skin type, skin, hair and eye color), family history of skin cancer, lifetime sunlight exposure, sunburn history, sun bed and/or lamp exposure, and diet.

To investigate the relationship between skin cancer and the Mediterranean diet, subjects completed a food frequency questionnaire. Researchers analyzed how often certain foods were consumed and accounted for individual characteristics and sun exposure.

Scientists don't yet know why this diet is so protective against cancers in general and skin cancer specifically. They speculate it's because it enables the body's immune system to work optimally, heal itself, and avoid the damaging effects of certain chemicals. What this study doesn't clearly indicate though is exactly which foods are skin-protective and how much needs to be consumed.

Nutritionists and doctors recommend the Mediterranean diet because it includes a wide range of foods known to be good for us and limits consumption of foods known to be bad for us. If it also protects our skin from cancer, that's an extra bonus.

Dennis Bley, DO, reviewed this article.



C. Fortes, S. Mastroeni, F. Melchi, M.A. Pilla, G. Antonelli, D. Camaioni, M. Alotto and P. Pasquini "A protective effect of the Mediterranean diet for cutaneous melanoma." Int. J. Epidemiol. (2008) 37 (5):1018-1029.doi: 10.1093/ije/dyn132 First published online: July 11, 2008.