One in twenty Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, referring to cancers of the colon or rectum, in their lifetime. Before you continue reading, take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. Developing cancer is certainly a scary prospect, but less so if you take charge of your health with simple steps you could begin right now to decrease your chances of developing colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the United States, but most types are highly preventable and treatable in the early stages. According to the American Institute for Cancer research, 45% of colorectal cancers in the United States could be prevented each year just from dietary and exercise habit changes alone. This correlates to over 64,000 cases of cancer each year that can be prevented by consuming a mostly plant-based diet and maintaining a healthy weight.
Your colon, also known as the large intestine, is one of the last stops in your gastrointestinal tract before the rectum and anus, where wastes are expelled from your body. Water, salt, and some remaining nutrients are removed from undigested food materials as they pass through your colon and this remaining mass forms stool. When abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably, they form a mass called a tumor and this tumor can grow into surrounding tissues or organs. The tumor cells that lead to colon cancer typically grow inside the large intestine and then spread to lymph nodes and other tissues throughout the body, becoming systemic, which is widespread throughout the body, and much harder to treat. Symptoms of colon cancer include abdominal pain, change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, weakness or tiredness, nausea and vomiting, swelling of the abdomen, rectal bleeding, bloody or black bowel movements, or rectal pain. These symptoms typically don’t occur until the cancer has already been growing for some time which is why screening is so important.
Steps You Can Take Right Now to Decrease Your Risk of Colon Cancer
|1. Adopt a More Plant Based Diet ➡||· Increase fruit and vegetable intake to 5 or more servings per day
· Increase whole grains (oats, brown rice, and quinoa) and legumes (like beans, peas, and lentils)
· Limit eggs, dairy products, and processed foods
|2. Limit Your Meat Consumption ➡||· Limit red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) to no more than 18 oz per week (this is 6 servings the size of a deck of cards) and avoid grilling meat
· Avoid processed meats (sausage, bacon, and deli meats)
|3. Increase Physical Activity ➡||· Walk at a moderate pace for 30 minutes most days of the week|
Although you may have heard of a possible link between taking aspirin, estrogen, calcium or vitamin D supplements and a lowered risk of colon cancer, some published studies have questioned these recommendations. How can you know if you’re taking the right amount of a supplement and when does too much of a good thing suddenly become harmful? While supplement recommendations may change based on new scientific findings, the very basic advice to eat more plant-based foods will likely never change and plant-based eating doesn’t have to put you on a strict, confusing, or expensive diet. What does a predominantly plant-based diet look like? It most certainly doesn’t mean you have to eat salads for the rest of your life, although you may begin to eat them more frequently. A plant-based diet stresses fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and minimizes meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as highly processed and refined foods like cakes or candies.
Many fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, chemicals that can slow or prevent cell damage, which is important in preventing cancer growth, so aim to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Legumes contain soluble fiber which is not broken down by enzymes in your digestive system and can increase the time food remains in your stomach, making you feel fuller longer and therefore less apt to snack on other foods. Whole grains also contain fiber, so aim for three or more servings of whole grains daily and try to get at least 25 grams of fiber each day along with plenty of water to prevent constipation.
Red meats and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, with processed meats showing the greatest risk. The reasons for this correlation are still unclear, but could be related to carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, substances that form when meat is cooked at high temperatures and when nitrate additives are used for meat preservation.
However, red meat is a good source of minerals iron, zinc, phosphorous, and selenium and B-vitamins niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin, and vitamin B-12, which is only found in animal products, so it can still be included in your diet and paired with protective fiber-rich plant-based foods. Limit your consumption of red meat to 18 ounces of cooked meat per week and cook your meat in ways to reduce the harmful compounds that form when meat is cooked at a high temperature. This includes using gentler cooking methods such as stewing and steaming rather than grilling or frying, minimizing cooking at high heats or exposing meat to a flame, not eating any charred or smoked food, and marinating meat in garlic, red wine, lemon juice, or olive oil before cooking. Processed meats should be avoided and rarely consumed.
Obesity and type 2 diabetes, two risk factors for developing colon cancer, can be managed by your new, mostly plant-based diet. Eating more fiber and water rich fruits and vegetables will help with weight loss or management which can alleviate these conditions. Along with diet, physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of colon cancer, so plan to incorporate 30 minutes of a physical activity like walking into your routine most days of the week.
Even if you’re now committed to a lifestyle to prevent the known causes of colon cancer, it is still advisable to get screened if you’re over the age of fifty, or earlier if you have greater risk factors such as being African American, have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, or have inflammatory intestinal conditions. Remember that you are not powerless to control the outcome of your health and consuming more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and less red and processed meats while increasing physical activity can only help your chances of staying colon cancer free.
Looking for nutrition support around gastrointestinal health? In search of an experienced registered dietitian nutritionist in the Centerport, New York area or virtually? Send Christina an email to learn more about 1:1 nutrition therapy sessions!