Food for Thought: What We Eat Affects Colorectal Cancer Risk.
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Photo illustration showing healthy food versus unhealthy food on a plate.

Most people know that fruits and vegetables are good for their bodies, but recent research suggests that the foods and drinks we choose can significantly increase our risk for colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, the easy, tasty options many people in the U.S. enjoy are top culprits: processed meats, sugary drinks and high-sodium snacks.

My team and I see patients every week whose colorectal cancer likely could have been avoided with education about better nutrition choices. I know it can be tough to give up or cut back on foods we love, but it’s important to work with your doctor to understand what foods to avoid and choose, as well as how to make healthier nutritional choices.

Foods and drinks that can increase colorectal cancer risk.

Certain foods that increase inflammation in the body also can increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, these happen to be foods that are popular with many patients, including:

  • Fatty foods
  • Foods that are high in sodium
  • Fried food
  • Processed meat, such as bacon, ham, hot dogs and sausage
  • Red meat, such as beef
  • Sweets

What you drink can factor in as well. Excessive amounts of alcohol are linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer, especially in men. One study also suggests that people who drink just one sugar-sweetened beverage a day have an 18 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes over a 10-year period. This is significant, because people with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk to develop colorectal cancer.

Foods that can reduce colorectal cancer risk.

I recommend that my patients eat a high-fiber diet to lower their risk of colorectal cancer. Researchers continue to investigate the effects of fiber on cancer risk, but it’s possible that because fiber reduces the time waste takes to exit your digestive system, it helps protect you from cancer-causing agents in the waste.

Most people should aim for 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber per day to lower their risk of developing colorectal cancer. Foods that are rich in fiber include:

  • Cereals
  • Legumes, such as peas or beans
  • Raw fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and flour, brown rice, oats and quinoa

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I see many patients who don’t get the amount of fiber they need as part of a healthy diet. This likely is part of the reason for increasing rates of colorectal cancer deaths among young adults, who are more likely to have grown up eating processed, unhealthy foods.

How we help patients choose healthier foods.

Many patients are surprised when I tell them diet is a risk factor for colorectal cancer. Oftentimes, they’re not even aware their diets are unhealthy. Our colorectal care team includes nutritionists who help patients find a balance between what’s healthy and what tastes good. Together, we find substitutes for the foods they enjoy, such as swapping skinless poultry and fish for processed or red meat.

But what happens if a patient doesn’t prepare their own meals, and a spouse or caregiver cooks for them? In these cases, I’ve found it helps to involve the family in the nutrition conversation. We help them learn to plan menus together and find alternatives to unhealthy favorites.

Nutrition is one piece of the puzzle to determine colorectal cancer risk, along with age and family history. While we can’t yet completely eliminate the possibility of developing colorectal cancer, we can help patients lower their risk by making healthier food and beverage choices.


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