A healthy colon starts with what you eat

Cassie Smith

In 1999, the Prevent Cancer Foundation® led the charge to designate March as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The designation became official on November 19, 1999, with a declaration by the U.S. Senate, followed by a resolution of the House of Representatives and an official proclamation from the White House.

The major goals of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month are to educate the public about the screening options available to prevent or detect cancer early and share other ways you can reduce your colorectal cancer risk, like exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco products and eating a healthy diet. A diet packed with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains is crucial for your colon’s health. While more research is being done to determine how certain foods may lower your risk for colorectal cancer, these tips can put you on the path to prevention.

  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Fresh fish (like tuna and salmon), nuts, flax seeds, spinach and vegetable oils contain healthy fats, which reduce inflammation and may lower your risk for cancer. A Vanderbilt University study found that women who ate three servings of fish per week had about a 33 percent reduction in risk for some colon polyps, which could eventually develop into cancer. They did not see the same effect in men, who often have diets high in omega-6 fatty acids—found in meats, grains and seed oils—that offset the benefits of the omega-3s.  
  • Fill your plate with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Focus your diet on these foods and limit your intake of red and processed meats (like bacon and hot dogs), which can increase your risk of colorectal cancer. Obesity is linked to an increase in risk for colorectal cancer, but a diet filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat lots of fiber. A diet high in fiber may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. You should get at least 30 grams of fiber every day from about five servings of fruits and vegetables and three small servings of whole grains. Barley, oatmeal, lentils, raspberries and broccoli are just some of the foods that contain healthy doses of fiber. 
  • Get your recommended daily intake of calcium and vitamin D. Some studies show that calcium and vitamin D may lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, or vegetables like kale and broccoli, are great sources of calcium. Vitamin D is not found naturally in many foods, but fish, such as salmon and tuna, do provide some. Foods fortified with vitamin D include milk, certain breakfast cereals and orange juice. 

Although following a healthy diet may reduce your risk, you should begin colorectal screening at age 50 (or earlier if you have a family history). Colorectal screening can detect pre-cancerous polyps or cancer in an early stage, when treatment is most successful. Talk to your health care professional about your options. As is the case with many other diseases, avoiding tobacco, exercising and limiting your alcohol intake can reduce your risk