What Should You Eat to Lower Your Risk of Colon Cancer?

image of doctor holding blue ribbon, closeup. Cancer awareness concept

Did you know that colorectal cancer, cancer originating in the colon or rectum, is the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women? Fortunately, deaths are on the decline, thanks to better screening and improved treatment of these cancers. But, there is one disturbing trend. Colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger, people under the age of 50. That’s alarming because we don’t routinely screen for colon cancer before the age of 50 unless the individual is at high risk due to genetics or other medical conditions.

Sadly, we’re seeing more men and women developing cancer of the colon and rectum in their 30’s and 40’s, during the prime years of their life. In fact, after factoring in age, those born in 1990 had twice the risk of developing colon cancer and four times the risk of being diagnosed with rectal cancer relative to someone born before 1950. This raises the question: What can you do to reduce your risk?

Screening Just Got a Little Easier

The best way to lower colorectal cancer risk is to get screened. If you don’t like the idea of a colonoscopy, there’s a newer test called Cologuard that can detect cancer in the colon and rectum using DNA markers. This test is totally noninvasive. So, screening should be at the top of your list as a means of preventing colon and rectal cancer as it can detect pre-malignant polyps so you can remove them before they become malignant.

You might wonder what other steps you can take to control your risk. For example, we know that diet is a factor in who gets cancer of the colon and rectum. Let’s take a closer look at what you can do from a dietary perspective to lower your risk.

Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

A 2018 study published in the journal JAMA Oncology, found that eating an inflammatory diet was linked with a greater risk of colorectal cancer. As you know, inflammation is a driving force behind a number of health problems, including some forms of cancer. The study, which followed over 121,000 male and female adults for 25 years, found that women who eat an inflammatory diet were 22% more likely to develop the disease while a similar diet boosted the risk in men by 44%. This is consistent with previous research showing that anti-inflammatory medications, including NSAID and aspirin, are associated with a reduced risk of this type of cancer.

In the study, researchers calculated an inflammatory score based on the foods the participants ate. You might wonder what foods are pro-inflammatory and which are not? In the study, processed meats, sugary drinks, and refined grains were deemed pro-inflammatory. Non-starchy vegetables, tea, and coffee were classified as anti-inflammatory. These foods and beverages contain a variety of phytochemicals that help reduce oxidative damage to cells and ease inflammation.

The participants who ate more of the pro-inflammatory foods and fewer of the anti-inflammatory foods were at higher risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer over the 25-year study. This doesn’t show that an inflammatory diet causes colon cancer, just that there’s an association. However, the findings were consistent even when they controlled for other factors that impact colon cancer risk, including genetics, age, exercise history, other health conditions, and habits like smoking and alcohol use.

Other Dietary Factors that May Impact Colon Cancer Risk

One dietary component that researchers have looked at in the past is fiber. It makes sense that a diet high in fiber would lower colorectal cancer risk as fiber helps reduce constipation and keep bowel habits regular. This reduces the amount of time food and bile acids stay in contact with the wall of the colon. Bile acids can damage the wall of the colon and make it easier for a malignant tumor or polyp to form. However, studies looking at its impact on colon cancer risk are inconsistent. Yet, many foods that are high in fiber seem to have a protective effect. We know that non-starchy vegetables are anti-inflammatory. Plus, research also links diets higher in whole grains with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.

As mentioned, processed meat is linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, based on the JAMA study previously discussed, but some research also shows a link between unprocessed red meat and an elevated risk of cancer of the colon and rectum. So, consider replacing some of the red meat in your diet with fish, a source of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, and plant-based protein.

In contrast, diets high in calcium may offer protection against colon cancer. Although not all studies show benefits, one of the most authoritative reviews of the link between calcium and colon cancer showed a protective effect of calcium on colorectal cancer risk. One way calcium may exert its benefits is by binding to bile acids in the intestinal tract and forming complexes that keep the bile acids from staying in contact with the lining of the colon.

One dietary component to limit is alcohol. According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk of colorectal cancer rises by 7% with every 10 grams of alcohol consumed daily. 10 grams is around ¾ of a drink daily. In fact, limiting or eliminating alcohol may lower your risk of a number of cancers, including cancer of the esophagus, breast, liver, and head, and neck cancer.

Other Factors

Beyond diet, two of the most important lifestyle habits that can lower your risk of colorectal cancer is regular physical activity and maintaining healthy body weight. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are two established risk factors for a variety of cancers, including colorectal cancer. Know your family history too! If colon cancer runs in your family, you may need to be screened for polyps and colon cancer earlier than the average population.



LiveScience.com. “Inflammatory Diet May Boost Colorectal Cancer Risk”
Cochrane.org. “Does dietary fibre prevent the recurrence of colorectal adenomas and carcinomas?”
National Cancer Institute. “Calcium and Cancer Prevention”
Medscape.com. “Whole Grains and Exercise Curb Risk for Colorectal Cancer”
World Cancer Research Fund International. “Colorectal cancer”
National Cancer Institute. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk”
American Cancer Society. “Study Finds Sharp Rise in Colon Cancer and Rectal Cancer Rates Among Young Adults”


Related Articles:

Explaining the Possible Link Between Red Meat and Cancer

How Much Does Diet Contribute to Cancer Risk?

Why is Colon Cancer on the Rise in Young Adults?

Does Exercise Reduce the Risk of Cancer?

5 Cancers That Exercise Reduces Your Risk For

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