Author of breast cancer diet says olive oil, vegetables will improve health

One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and Mary Flynn suggests that more than 50 percent of those women will experience an average of a 15-pound weight gain during treatment.

Mary Flynn (Photo: Jared Leeds)
Flynn, an assistant professor of medicine and nutritionist at the Miriam Hospital, spoke at Rhode Island College on Oct. 19 in Craig-Lee Hall about “The Pink Ribbon Diet,” a recent book she co-authored with Nancy Verde Barr, an executive chef to Julia Child for almost 20 years.

This book is for people who are at risk for breast cancer, have been treated for the disease or want to improve their health, said Flynn.

Part one of “The Pink Ribbon Diet” discusses and outlines a plant-based, olive-oil diet (PBOO), also known as a Mediterranean diet, focusing on extra virgin olive oil and vegetables. Flynn suggests her diet with these two components will help people shed excess body fat.

The PBOO diet focuses on foods that will improve and maintain one’s health while eliminating foods that make one less healthy, said Flynn. The diet reduces high levels of oxidation, insulin, glucose and other biomarkers known to drive cancer and tumor growth, she added.

European studies in Spain and Italy in the mid-1990s suggest a “dose-response relationship,” between olive oil and weight gain, said Flynn. Therefore, the more olive oil present in one’s diet, the less at risk one is to gain weight and develop breast cancer.

Flynn recommends extra virgin olive oil to breast cancer patients because it contains monounsaturated fat, a “good” fat that aids in weight loss, as well as high levels of vitamin E and other antioxidants.

Extra virgin olive oil also increases phytonutrients – plant chemicals that contain disease-preventing compounds – that are known to inhibit breast cancer cell growth, said Flynn.

Only two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil are required for the diet each day, and Flynn believes it makes vegetables taste better when cooked in the oil, which makes participants want to eat more.

Flynn was at first surprised that people on her diet reported that they were losing weight and weren’t constantly hungry, she said.

When vegetables are cooked in water, said Flynn, 60 percent of their nutritional value is lost. In order for phytonutrients from the vegetables to enter the blood stream, they need to be cooked in fat, one reason why Flynn suggests cooking with extra virgin olive oil.

An unlimited number of vegetables can be eaten each day, she said. Flynn recommends frozen or canned vegetables since they contain more carotenoids – the color in plant products protective against cancer – than fresh vegetables provide.

She also named several factors she believed to increase breast cancer risk, including red meat, polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils and margarine and most surprisingly, a low-fat diet – what the National Cancer Institute recommends for breast cancer patients.

Many of Flynn’s clients are surprised at her suggestion that low-fat diets are unhealthy, she said, since that is what their doctors’ often recommend.

Low-fat diets deprive people of the fat they need in order to absorb phytonutrients and also to increase insulin and glucose levels, and have never been shown to lead to long-term weight management, said Flynn.

The second part of “The Pink Ribbon Diet” presents readers with 150 simple and affordable recipes for any meal of the day. One breakfast recipe, Morning Glory Muffins “are packed with so many good ingredients,” said Flynn. Another recipe is a twist on an American staple: whole-wheat spaghetti with tomatoes, feta cheese and fresh basil leaves.

“I love food and cooking and I am so happy when I can help clients to eat in a way that is healthy,” Flynn said in an interview with Providence Business News in 2010. “I am hoping that this book allows women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, to enjoy food, find cooking fun and rewarding and lead to better weight management and health.”

Flynn is currently testing the PBOO diet on men with recurrent prostate cancer.

The event was sponsored by RIC’s Office of Health Promotion in observation of October as breast cancer awareness month.

"We are persistently searching for research-based ways to prevent breast cancer and enhance its treatment,” said Mary B. Olenn, a consultant for health promotion at RIC. “Having a nationally recognized nutrition expert speak to the RIC community is a cutting edge tool to improve our health."