Colon Cancer and Diet: What’s the Connection?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007 - 4:24pm

By Dena McDowell, MS, RD

According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Research has shown that diet and lifestyle choices directly relate to colon cancer risk. Changing dietary patterns to incorporate better food choices may reduce your risk of developing this disease.

Eat from the rainbow
Research shows that eating fruits and vegetables provides necessary vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber which can help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. It is recommended to eat five to nine servings of fruits or vegetables every day. Portions of fruits and vegetables may be smaller than your think. One serving of fruit equals one cup of fresh or canned fruit or 100 percent natural fruit juice, or a half cup of dried fruit. One serving of vegetables equals one cup of fresh, frozen or canned, one cup of 100 percent vegetable juice or two cups of leafy greens. To meet your daily quota of fruits and vegetables strive to eat one to two servings at meal times and for snacks. Eating fruits and vegetables are low calorie choices that can help promote weight loss as well.

Limit red meats and processed foods
Eating a diet high in red meats and processed foods increases the unhealthy fats in your diet. Variety is the key to getting enough protein in the diet. Try to balance out red meats with lean cuts of pork, chicken and fish more often. Also including meat alternatives such as legumes (beans) or soy protein foods is an excellent way to ensure enough protein with the proper balance. Limit processed meats such as luncheon meats, jerky, sausage, bacon, canned meats, pepperoni and hot dogs as these contain large amounts of unhealthy fats and nitrates which are thought to increase of cancer cell development.

Avoiding or limiting processed foods and fast foods is another way to make your diet healthier. When eating fast foods try to make better choices by adding a side salad (with light dressing), fruit, yogurt, low fat milk or baked potatoes instead of fries. Choosing baked and broiled options instead of fried foods also decreases the amount of fat and calories from fast foods restaurants. If you eat a lot of processed foods such as chips, crackers and cookies, try to eat fruits and vegetables instead to decrease calories and fat.

Take a multivitamin supplement with folate
Research shows that there may be a benefit of taking a daily multivitamin that contains folate (or folic acid). According to the Nurse’s Health Study, those taking a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid decreased their chances of developing colon cancer by half compared to those who didn’t take folate in cases where there was a family history of colon cancer. Taking a daily multivitamin that contains folic acid is an easy way to decrease colon cancer risk as well as to help meet your daily requirements for other nutrients.

Increase your calcium intake
Another study by the American Cancer Society found that taking calcium supplements may decrease the risk of colon cancer by thirty percent compared to those not taking calcium. The researchers found that as little of 700 milligrams of supplemental calcium a day decreased the risk, whereas more than the recommended 1200 milligrams (for those 50 years and older) showed no decreased cancer risk. Calcium from supplements showed this correlation compared to dietary sources of calcium. Researchers are not sure of the exact mechanism but believe taking calcium supplements equal to the Recommended Daily Intake of 1000-1300 milligrams is not harmful. It should be noted that large amounts of calcium (in excess of the Upper Limit of 2500 milligrams a day) have been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer.

Alcohol and weight
Limiting alcohol intake to one glass of alcohol a day for women and two servings a day for men is recommended. If you are not a drinker then it is recommended that you do not start. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of liquor or 5 ounces of wine. The Nurse’s Health study mentioned above showed that women who consumed 30 grams of alcohol (equivalent to 2 glasses of wine) a day increased their risk of colon cancer risk by four times as compared to those without a family history who did not drink. Moderation is key.

Shedding extra pounds if overweight or obese is another thing that you can do to reduce your risk of colon cancer as well as many other forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Reducing your weight by eating healthy and exercising is the best way to keep the weight off for good. Seek a registered dietitian or weight management support group in your area to help get you started.

Eating a healthy diet plays an integral role in reducing your risk of developing colon cancer. Maintaining a proper weight or losing weight if needed is also helpful. Regular exercise coupled with a healthy diet are two ways that you can control your own cancer fate. Other things that you can do are to get a routine colonoscopy when you turn 50 or earlier if there is a family history. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol are also ways to decrease your risk of developing cancer of any form.