Eating for Colon Health
How Diet — and Lifestyle — Can Help Prevent Colon Cancer
Published March 2020
Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third-leading cause of death in the world. Some CRC risk factors can’t be changed: sex, age, ethnicity and family history. Some can be.
“Modifiable risk factors play a crucial role in colon health,” says Northwestern Medicine Advanced Clinical Dietitian Patricia Araujo, RD. “According to the American Cancer Society, more than half of CRC cases can be attributed to modifiable factors in the U.S.”
From what you eat to how much you move, here are CRC risk factors you can control.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
“We know that 13 cancers, including CRC, are associated with having excess weight and obesity,” says Araujo. “While the connection is not fully understood, maintaining a healthy weight is a top lifestyle modification for reducing your CRC risk.”
This means maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI) of anywhere between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2. If you are a healthy weight, avoid weight gain. If you are carrying excess weight, losing 5 percent to 15 percent of your body weight can have many health benefits.
In addition to reducing risk of diseases of the colon, being a healthy weight will reduce risk for other diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease and many more.
Be Physically Active
Exercise goes hand-in-hand with maintaining a healthy weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and participate in strength training twice per week.
“Break this down in a way that is sustainable for your lifestyle, whether that’s walking more or playing a sport you love,” suggests Araujo. “Limit sedentary behaviors as much as possible.”
Use a fitness tracker to monitor your activity level.
Limit Red and Processed Meats
Consume red meat (beef, lamb, pork) in moderation. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week. Portion sizes will vary based on individual needs, but they break down to about 3 to 5 ounces for women and 4 to 6 ounces for men.
To reduce cancer risk, the AICR also recommends limiting processed foods such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon and deli meat.
“Look for lean sources of protein, such as chicken, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, legumes, beans and nuts,” says Araujo. “Remember that restaurant food typically has larger portions, so be mindful about consuming meat when you eat out.”
Limit Alcoholic Drinks
Moderate to heavy alcohol use has been linked to CRC. Women should have no more than one drink per day and men no more than two.
One drink equals a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 1/2 ounces of hard liquor or distilled spirits. Be mindful if you drink fancy cocktails like margaritas: Besides sometimes having more than a single serving of alcohol, they may also have added sugar and upwards of 500 to 600 calories, which can contribute to weight gain if not consumed in moderation.
Get Enough Fiber
Fiber is important for overall health and colon health, yet most Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diet. In fact, the average consumption is 13 to 15 grams per day, when the recommendation is 38 g per day for men and 25 g per day for women.
Here are Araujo’s suggestions for increasing fiber in your diet:
- Make at least 50 percent of your grains whole grains (such as oats, brown rice, quinoa and bulgur) instead of refined grains (white flour, white bread and white rice).
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
- Legumes, nuts and seeds can also be a good source of fiber, along with other important nutrients.
People who smoke have a higher risk of developing many cancers, including CRC. If you smoke, talk to your physician about quitting. Many resources are available to help.
Keep Up With Screening
Talk to your physician about when you should start regular CRC screening based on your family history and lifestyle. “While it’s not related to diet, screening is one of the most powerful tools against CRC and a modifiable factor as well,” concludes Araujo.