Move over “Mediterranean Diet” — there’s a new ethnic cuisine gaining recognition for health benefits. In this case: the Native Mexican Diet and breast cancer protection. Before you decide to celebrate October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month by raising a margarita and ordering another round of nachos, keep in mind that we are not talking about the fast-food version of Mexican fare popular in the U.S., but a whole-food, fiber-rich diet emphasizing beans, tomato-based dishes, spices and soups.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published what’s become known as the “Four Corners Breast Cancer Study,” as it compares disease risk and dietary patterns for 3,989 women from the area where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. As expected, the Mediterranean Diet (including seafood, poultry, vegetables, salad greens, olive oil and wine) offered significant reduction in the risk of breast cancer: 24%. Also not surprisingly, the Western diet (including high-fat dairy, refined grains, gravies, fast food, red and processed meats) posed an increased breast cancer risk of 32%. But the show stopper was that the Native Mexican Diet offered the most protection of all: 32% lower risk.

Why might that be? For one thing, fiber-rich beans are a staple of the Mexican diet. In fact, depending on the variety, a cup of cooked beans can help you meet nearly half your fiber needs for the day — and premenopausal women with the highest fiber intake had half the breast cancer risk as those with lowest intakes, according to one study. Other research found a 40% lower risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women with the highest fiber intake. No wonder the USDA recommends Americans triple their bean consumption to three cups a week.

The Native Mexican Diet also includes tomato-based dishes and tomato phytochemicals may suppress breast cancer cell growth according to one Israeli study.  Traditional Mexican cuisine also relies heavily on herbs and  spices, which may contain protective compounds. For example, one study showed that phytochemicals in cilantro may help halt progression of liver cancer.

Published October 1, 2009