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Diet has been recognized as an important modifiable risk factor for colorectal cancer (CRC). In particular, diets consisting of high fats and carbohydrates, such as red and processed meats, are considered high-risk. Now, a large-scale cohort study among U.S. residents has revealed that high consumption of ultra-processed foods might increase CRC risk in men—the third most diagnosed cancer in the U.S.. 

For the past two decades, researchers have witnessed a significant increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods, industrial ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products high in refined sugars, refined starch, and trans fats. Ultra-processed foods currently contribute to 57% of the total daily calories consumed by American adults. A growing pool of evidence suggests that ultra-processed foods increase CRC risk by altering the composition and diversity of gut microbiota and increasing the risk of obesity.  Some examples of these foods include bread and rolls, breakfast bars and cereals, hotdogs and other processed meats, packaged sweet snacks and desserts, jams and jellies, and condiments, among other things.

The above-mentioned study analyzed responses from over 200,000 participants—159,907 women from the Nurses’ Health Study (1986-2015) and 46,341 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2014)—across three large prospective studies in the U.S. that assessed dietary intake. The follow-up period was between 24-28 years. At the time of study enrollment, none of the participants had any cancer diagnoses. Information on dietary intake, demographic characteristics, lifestyle factors, and medical conditions of the participants was obtained through food frequency questionnaires every four years. 

Of the 206,000 participants who were followed for more than 25 years, the research team documented 1,294 cases of CRC among men and 1,922 cases among women. The study findings indicated that those who consumed the highest amount of ultra-processed foods had a 29% higher risk of CRC compared to those with the lowest consumption. However, this was not observed among women. Among women, the risk of CRC was positively associated with higher consumption of ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat mixed dishes. In contrast, higher consumption of yogurt and dairy-based desserts was linked to a reduced risk of CRC among women. 

These findings support the importance of limiting certain types of ultra-processed foods for better health outcomes. Here are some additional resources on diet and lifestyle and how they can influence your colon health and overall wellness:

  1. Healthy Inside and Out: How Diet and Lifestyle Impact Colorectal Cancer
  2. Dietary Mindfulness Can Reduce the Risk of Colorectal Cancer
  3. Diet and Nutrition to Prevent Colon Cancer

 

Kitty Chiu is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Image credit: Tim Toomey on Unsplash

You can help significantly decrease your chances of colorectal cancer through proactive action related to your diet.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight Helps Prevent Colon Cancer

One of the best things you can do is to get yourself to a healthy weight and maintain it within a designated range. By maintaining a healthy weight you won’t just be proactively protecting yourself from colon cancer, you’ll also be making an investment in your overall health.

What to Eat to Beat Colon Cancer and Help Prevent it

Some of the best foods to be eating to lower your chances of contracting colon cancer include, chicken, fish, fruits, and whole grains.

Foods that you should avoid eating in excess include red meats and anything that is rich in refined sugars.

The Link Between Obesity and Colon Cancer

A strong link has been identified between obesity and colon cancer. Diet choices have a profound impact on how susceptible you are to contracting colon cancer.

It’s important to remember that making healthy choices with what you eat and how much affects much more than your susceptibility to contracting colon cancer. Your diet affects your overall health. It’s also important to remember that portion size is just as important as the food that you choose to eat. You can eat red meat without increasing your chance of getting colon cancer if you do it in moderation.

Someone who enjoys a steak every couple of weeks or so for dinner with a salad is not going to have a particularly high risk of getting colon cancer. Conversely, someone who eats steak, pork, sausage, and bacon in large quantities every single day or even every other day, will greatly increase their chances of having colon cancer.

Eating red meats in small amounts and in limited frequency is perfectly fine. No one needs to be panicking about eating a steak every now and again. No matter what you eat, your portion size is vital. Larger portion sizes are unhealthy and will put weight on fast.

You shouldn’t commit to a healthy diet just to decrease your chances of contracting colon cancer, you should want to eat healthy to feel better about yourself and increase your overall health. If you exercise and maintain a healthy diet, you won’t just be limiting your chances of getting colon cancer. You will feel better, and eliminate your susceptibility to countless other health problems.

How Does a Poor Diet Increase Your Chances of Contracting Colon Cancer?

Some of you might be wondering exactly how a poor diet increases your chances of contracting colon cancer. Obviously foods that are rich in fats aren’t good for you, but why does such delicious food have to make you more susceptible to such a horrible disease?

Studies have shown that when mice were fed a diet consisting of foods that were high in fats, they exhibited aggressive cell growth of stem-like cells that encourage mutation. This aggressive cell growth is typically coupled with the development of cancerous tumors along the intestine.

The unfortunate mice who were tested offer us invaluable insights into the factors that affect one’s chances of developing colon cancer. Their sacrifice, while trivial compared to the totality of scientific inquiry, is significant and it can save lives, human lives.

Further Recommendations

With so much information out there on the internet, it can be difficult to distinguish genuinely useful information from inaccurate drivel. For example, fiber supplements and antioxidant vitamins do not reduce one’s chances of having colon cancer, nor does it affect polyps.

Calcium, on the other hand, does have an effect on polyps and helps reduce polyp recurrence. Another thing that can help you is regular exercise. If you’re going to make the effort to maintain a healthy diet, you should double down and add exercise to the mix.

By exercising, eating healthy, and consuming the recommended amount of calcium, you can reduce your chances of contracting colon cancer significantly. Although these lifestyle changes can give you much better odds, it’s still imperative that you schedule regular screenings. If you aren’t being screened for colon cancer, you can still contract if and all of your efforts will be for naught, especially if it isn’t detected early on, hence the importance of regular screenings.