Diet and Colorectal Cancer

Diet plays an integral role in keeping us healthy. But beyond strong bones, eyes and teeth, a proper diet also helps prevent or reduce the likelihood of contracting a number of serious illnesses, including many kinds of cancers. One specific example is colon (colorectal) cancer, which kills more than 50,000 men and women a year in the United States alone.

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.  American Cancer Society estimates for the number of newly diagnosed U.S. colon cancer cases exceeds 103,000 men and women, and another 37,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods.  The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat, and the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses.

Our nutritional choices can help prevent colon cancer, especially if our diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods. Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: Fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role. Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

Prevention starts with awareness

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done virtually (using diagnostic imagery) or surgically. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease, including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies and new technologies for early detection.

In a world where so much is beyond our control, it’s nice to know that we can still make smart choices that are likely to improve or maintain our health. Research suggests that up to 35 percent of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!