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Preventing colorectal cancer through good nutrition

February 21, 2022

Cancer Gastroenterology
Woman cutting vegetables at the kitchen

Cancers of the large intestine — or colorectal cancers — are quite common in the U.S. The American Cancer Society says about 1 in 25 people in the United States will develop colon or rectal cancer at some point in their lives. And recently, cases in younger people have been on the rise.

“As we’ve seen more cases in younger patients, doctors and researchers have been wondering if diet plays a bigger role in colorectal cancer than we previously thought,” says Celestine Maiki, M.D., a board-certified, fellowship-trained gastroenterologist with Riverside Gastroenterology Specialists with Riverside. 

Dr. Maiki explains that, while there isn’t enough evidence yet to prove a healthy diet can change your colon cancer risk, medical experts suspect the rising rates among younger adults could be linked to the popularity of processed foods and fast foods over the last several decades.

“At the same time, rates of obesity have increased steadily,” he adds. “And obesity is a proven risk factor for colorectal cancer. Good nutrition helps us avoid obesity and provides many other health benefits. It’s worthwhile to make diet changes along with other lifestyle improvements to lower your risk of cancer and other diseases,” says Dr. Maiki.

How to change your diet to protect against colorectal cancer

Here’s what we know for sure about the connection between what we eat and colorectal cancer:

  • Eating a healthy diet low in animal fats and high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity.
  • Red meat (beef, lamb or pork) and processed meats like deli meats and hot dogs have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Recent studies show that colorectal cancer risk seems to go down as a person adds more whole grains to their diet.
  • Studies show a higher risk of colorectal cancer with increased alcohol consumption. This is especially true for men. Avoiding alcohol can reduce this risk.

In general, eating a healthy diet full of nutritious, fresh foods and low in processed foods improves your overall health. Good nutrition also helps you maintain a healthy weight and decreases your risk for several chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

It’s smart to eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and less red and processed meats. And avoid alcohol or drink no more than the recommended daily amount (one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks per day if you’re a man).

These simple changes have the power to make a profound difference in our health, especially when practiced consistently over time.

Other risk factors for colorectal cancer

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease.

Obesity is just one risk factor for colorectal cancer. Other known risk factors are:

  • Being African American
  • Being diagnosed with familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome
  • Being over the age of 50
  • Drinking three or more alcoholic drinks per day
  • Having a family history of colorectal cancer
  • Having a personal health history of previous colorectal cancer, high-risk polyps, ovarian cancer or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Smoking cigarettes

“Some risk factors can’t be changed, but some can be avoided. And two of the risk factors of colorectal cancer that you can avoid — drinking alcohol and obesity — are directly tied to diet, nutrition and gut inflammation,” says Dr. Maiki.

More ways to decrease your colon cancer risk

In addition to eating a healthy diet, more steps you can take to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer include:

  • Get screened regularly for colorectal cancer beginning at age 45. Regular screening is the most effective way to prevent colorectal cancer.
  • Get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week — physical activity is linked to a decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Consider taking aspirin which studies suggest can lower your risk for colorectal cancer. Talk to your doctor before starting an aspirin regimen, however, to make sure it’s safe for you.
  • If you’re a woman who has gone through menopause, talk to your doctor about how taking combination hormone replacement therapy can decrease your risk for colorectal cancer.

These points are all protective factors for colorectal cancer, meaning they may help prevent the disease.

If you’re 45 years old or older and have never been screened for colorectal cancer, now’s the time to schedule a screening test. Riverside offers three testing options. Call Riverside scheduling at 757-316-5777 or schedule an appointment online.

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