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Eat This and Ditch That to Help Prevent Colorectal Cancer

Some foods can help keep your colon healthy while others can up your risk of colorectal cancer.

Medically reviewed in November 2021

Updated on November 16, 2021

apples, bowl of apples
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Colorectal cancer, which includes colon cancer and rectal cancer, is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. While some risk factors such as family history and age can’t be controlled, making a few lifestyle changes may help prevent the disease. Aside from exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting recommended screening tests, cleaning up your eating habits can be another important step toward prevention. Find out which foods to add to your diet and which to avoid for colon health.

salmon dinner
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Eat: Fatty fish

Swap out the red meats and fried chicken for this superfood. Fatty fish, like salmon, is full of omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that these healthy fats may help slow colon cancer growth and potentially reduce the development of colorectal tumors. While more research is needed to determine how big of a role omega-3 fats play in reducing colon cancer risk, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating 4-ounce servings of fatty fish twice a week. You don’t have to stick to salmon. Other fish high in omega-3s include trout, mackerel, and sardines.

close up of brown rice
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Eat: Whole Grains

A 2017 meta-analysis published in Cancer Epidemiology found that eating more daily servings of whole grains was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Previous research has linked brown rice in particular to a reduction in colon polyps, growths that can become cancerous. One reason why whole grains may help protect against colon cancer is that they are high in fiber, which helps clear toxins from the digestive tract.

broccoli
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Eat: Cruciferous Vegetables

It’s not news that vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet, but did you know they may benefit your colon? Studies have shown that eating several servings of veggies each day is associated with a lower colorectal cancer risk. Eating cooked green vegetables at least once a day, compared to less than five times a week, has been linked to a 24 percent reduction in the risk of colon polyps.

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and arugula can also keep your gut healthy thanks to isothiocyanates, anti-inflammatory compounds that help turn on a gene that sweeps out cancer cells. Crunchy greens are also great sources of folate, and some research suggests that having high blood levels of this nutritient (also known as vitamin B9), is linked to a lower risk of colon cancer.  

bean soup
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Eat: Beans and Legumes

Legumes, a food group that includes beans as well as, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and peanuts may be especially colon-friendly. One study published in 2011 in Nutrition and Cancer indicated that people who ate legumes three times a week had a 33 percent lower risk of colon polyp growth. As with whole grains, legumes have hefty amounts of fiber, which may explain their cancer-preventing properties.      

apples
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Eat: Fruits

Fruits are another no-brainer when it comes to healthy eating—but they’ve also been shown to protect against certain cancers. Research suggests that aiming for 200 grams or more of fruit each day (about the amount in one medium-sized apple), can help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Apples may be particularly beneficial. Pectin, the fibrous part of the fruit, may produce compounds that protect colon cells. The antioxidants in apples may also help slow cancer cell growth.

red meat
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Ditch: Red and Processed Meat

Red meat (such as beef, pork, and lamb), and processed meat (such as bacon, sausage, and hot dogs) raise several dietary red flags, particularly for heart disease, given the high amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol they contain. Regular consumption of these protein sources has also been linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer. This may be due to the preservatives in processed meat and the way red meat is often cooked. Grilling, charring, and other high-heat and open-flame cooking methods produce chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds may contribute to DNA changes, which can increase cancer risk.     

whisky
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Ditch: Alcohol

Drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. This may have to do with the way alcohol is metabolized. A toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde forms when ethanol is broken down in the body. Acetaldehyde may damage cells and cause changes to DNA, which can lead to cancer.

Drinking alcohol may also trigger oxidation in the body, which damages DNA, and it may prevent the body from absorbing essential nutrients—including vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as folate and carotenoids—that help protect the body against cancer.

If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start. If you do, remember that moderation is key. Experts recommend that men limit themselves to two drinks per day, while the recommended limit for women is one drink per day.

Sources:

Volpato M, Hull MA. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids as adjuvant therapy of colorectal cancer. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2018;37(2-3):545-555.
Song M, Lee I-M, Manson JE, et al. Effect of Supplementation With Marine ω-3 Fatty Acid on Risk of Colorectal Adenomas and Serrated Polyps in the US General Population: A Prespecified Ancillary Study of a Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Oncol. 2020;6(1):108-115.
Song M, Zhang X, Meyerhardt JA, et al. Marine ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and survival after colorectal cancer diagnosis. Gut. 2017;66(10):1790-1796.
Schwingshackl L, Schwedhelm C, Hoffmann G, et al. Food groups and risk of colorectal cancer. Int J Cancer. 2018;142(9):1748-1758.
Tantamango YM, Knutsen SF, Beeson WL, Fraser G, Sabate J. Foods and food groups associated with the incidence of colorectal polyps: the Adventist Health Study. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63(4):565-572.
Chen Y, Li Y, Wang X-Q, et al. Phenethyl isothiocyanate inhibits colorectal cancer stem cells by suppressing Wnt/β-catenin pathway. Phytother Res. 2018;32(12):2447-2455.
Blanco-Pérez F, Steigerwald H, Schülke S, Vieths S, Toda M, Scheurer S. The dietary fiber pectin: health benefits and potential for the treatment of allergies by modulation of gut microbiota. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2021;21(10):43.
Boyer J, Liu RH. Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Nutr J. 2004;3:5.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Lee JE, Willett WC, Fuchs CS, et al. Folate intake and risk of colorectal cancer and adenoma: modification by time. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(4):817-825. 

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