How to Lower Your Risk for Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal or colon cancer accounts for one-third of all cancer-related deaths in the United States, affecting men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, especially in people over 50. But more recently, there’s been a worrying increase in colon cancer diagnoses among younger people, although the reasons remain unclear.

There are many well-known risk factors that increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing colon cancer, including genetic and environmental factors. Several hereditary colon cancer syndromes are passed down from parents to their children, such as Lynch Syndrome (Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer), Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), and MUTYH-associated polyposis (MAP). These cancer syndromes only account for approximately 5 % of all colon cancer diagnoses.

Other chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), Ulcerative colitis, and obesity also increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing colon cancer.

While many of the risk factors for colon cancer are not within our power to control, such as cancer syndromes and environmental factors. There are dietary and lifestyle factors that we can engage in to help us reduce our risk and lead healthier lives.

Limit Red Meat & Avoid Processed Meat

A diet high in red and processed meats has a strong association with colon cancer. Red meat refers to meat from mammals like beef, pork, and lamb. Processed meat is any animal meat that has been transformed by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives to enhance flavor and shelf life. Examples of processed meat include ham, bacon, pastrami, sausages, hot dogs, and cold cuts.

The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) recommends eating no more than 12 to 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week. This amounts to roughly 4 to 6, 3-ounce portions of cooked meat, approximately the size of a deck of cards. AICR also recommends avoiding processed meat except for special occasions or limiting it to a couple of times per year.

Consume a Whole Food, Mostly Plant-Focused Diet

There is strong evidence that a diet rich in whole foods can go a long way towards reducing our risk for colon cancer. A whole foods diet consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. All these foods offer a wealth of dietary fiber that supports a healthy immune system. Studies have shown that a diet high in dietary fiber can reduce your risk of colon cancer.

Dietary fiber comes in two types, soluble and insoluble, both of which have different effects on and benefit the body and are a central part of a cancer-protective diet. Small steps towards adding more fiber to your diet can be as easy as leaving the peels on your carrots and potatoes or opting for brown over white rice.

Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Calcium

Calcium is widely known for its role in maintaining good bone health. Still, studies show that it can bind to bile acids and free fatty acids, building up over time in the colon. This accumulation can induce toxic effects on the colon wall’s lining and increase the likelihood of cancer progression.

While many people believe that calcium supplementation is the only way to meet our calcium needs, people can meet their calcium requirements through food alone. Calcium-rich food sources include tofu, leafy greens, low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium is different for men and women. It can vary depending on your specific health needs.

  • For adult men, the RDA for calcium is 1000 milligrams (mg) per day up to age 70. After 70 years of age, the RDA is 1200 mg.
  • For adult women, the RDA for calcium is 1000 mg per day up to age 50. After 50 years of age, the RDA is 1200 mg.

Be sure to check with your doctor or registered dietitian if you are unsure whether your diet has enough calcium for your age and gender.

Boost Your Immune System With Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a hormone that has many roles in our bodies that support health. It has been studied for its potential protective role in cancer prevention and treatment. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain its anticancer effects. Chronic low-grade inflammation is a low-grade, prolonged inflammatory response that results in the progressive destruction of tissues. It is now well accepted that chronic inflammation is a known driver for cancer progression. A review of studies has shown that maintaining adequate vitamin D levels may reduce the risk of developing colon cancer. 

The best source of vitamin D comes from the sun. When sun exposure is limited, various vitamin D rich food sources, including cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines. Other food sources of vitamin D are fortified dairy and alternative milk products.

It’s recommended to have your levels tested annually by your doctor to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D before taking a vitamin D supplement.

Never Stop Moving

There is strong evidence that staying active throughout our lifetimes reduces our risk of many cancers, including colon cancer. It’s recommended to aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity or 15 minutes of vigorous activity 5 days per week. If you’re just starting to incorporate exercise into your life, start slowly walking or ride a bike and continue building from there.

Physical activity is not only crucial for cancer prevention but also in cancer survivorship and beyond. Keep in mind that a little physical activity is better than none at all — every bit of exercise can help.

Reduce Your Consumption of Alcohol

Increased alcohol consumption has been linked to several types of cancer, including colon cancer. The chemical byproducts of alcohol breakdown in our body are toxic to our cells, particularly to cells in our colon. High alcohol consumption can also increase oxidative stress and damage our cell’s DNA repair mechanisms.

There is convincing evidence that consuming alcoholic drinks beyond two drinks per day increases colon cancer risk. Luckily, many nonalcoholic drinks – like this Mock Sangria or Pomegranate Lime Sour – are equally refreshing and enjoyable without increasing your cancer risk.

Get Screened Regularly

Eating a nutrient-rich diet and frequent exercising provide ways to help reduce your cancer risk. It is also essential to see your doctor and get screened regularly. Thanks to effective screening from colonoscopies, early interventions, and better treatment options, fewer people die from colon cancer and live longer healthier lives.

Kate Ueland, MS, RD, specializes in oncology nutrition, primarily working with breast, ovarian, renal, and melanoma cancer patients throughout all stages of the cancer journey at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) in Seattle, WA. As Cook for Your Life’s nutrition advisor and editor, Kate ensures all culinary content adheres to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and follows science-based guidelines. 

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