Diet, Obesity, and Colon Cancer: Learn the Risks

  • Learn which foods to choose (or avoid) to reduce your risk

    Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States and a leading cause of cancer death. A healthy diet can help reduce your risk.  

    According to the American Cancer Society, about 55% of colorectal cancers are linked to lifestyle-related risk factors, such as: 

    • Alcohol use 
    • Diet 
    • Physical activity 
    • Smoking 
    • Weight 

    That means making changes to your diet, as well as other healthy habits, may help to reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Here’s what to know.  

    Avoid foods and drinks that may raise your risk

    Research is ongoing, but studies show certain food choices are linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer. 

    Red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and bacon have been linked to increased colon cancer risk. While it’s OK to enjoy these foods once in a while, it's best the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat. Aim for no more than 12 to 18 ounces per week. 

    Some studies have found that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages may raise colorectal cancer risk, although more study is needed is need to clarify the connection. It’s clear that sugar sweetened drinks can lead to weight gain—another risk factor for colorectal cancer. 

    Drinking alcohol is also linked to an increased risk for colorectal cancer, especially among men. Avoiding alcohol is the best way to reduce your risk, but if you choose to drink, the American Cancer Society recommends no more than one drink per day for women or two for men.  

    High-fiber, nutritious foods may help lower risk

    While some foods and drinks are linked to a high risk of colorectal cancer, other food choices may help lower it—such as eating a high-fiber diet. One possible reason is that dietary fiber helps your gut microbiome to keep cells healthy and reduce inflammation. To help prevent colorectal cancer, aim for at least 30 grams of fiber per day. 

    You can get that fiber by eating whole grains, like those in brown rice or whole-wheat bread. Adding more vegetables, fruits, and beans to your diet can help too. Research suggests that the vitamins, minerals and plant compounds in these foods may help by reducing inflammation and adding antioxidants. 

    Low levels of calcium and vitamin D have been linked to colorectal cancer risk. Eating dairy products or other sources of these nutrients may help ensure you’re getting enough. Ask your doctor about your levels and how best to raise them if they’re low. It’s important to keep in mind that consuming too much calcium or dairy has been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer. 

    Beyond choosing specific foods, choosing a healthy eating pattern can help reduce your colorectal cancer risk another way—by helping you maintain a healthy weight. 

    The link between obesity and colon cancer

    Researchers are still learning about the link between obesity and cancer risk. But it’s clear that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop and die from colorectal cancer.  

    Excess weight increases insulin and related hormones in the blood. These can encourage cancer growth. Plus, excess fat can create an environment that is friendly for inflammation. This can also contribute to the growth of cancer. Obesity is also linked to type 2 diabetes—another risk factor for colorectal cancer. 

    Small changes can have an impact

    If you need help choosing a healthy diet that works for you, ask your doctor for advice. Ask about other ways you can reduce your risk, such as stopping smoking or increasing physical activity. But remember, you don’t have to do it all at once. Any way you can reduce your colorectal cancer risk is worthwhile.  

    Another key way to protect yourself: regular screening with a colonoscopy or stool-based testing. Polyps that form in the colon may become cancerous if left in place. Screening can find polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends testing for colon cancer starting at age 45, but that guidance may change based on your personal risk for the disease. Work with your care team to come up with a screening plan that’s right for you. 

    If it’s time to schedule your next colonoscopy, you can count on Fox Chase Cancer Center. Call 888-369-2427 or request an appointment online