Reduce your risk of colorectal cancer

Colleen Farnum

As a physician assistant specializing in gastroenterology, I often get asked if lifestyle habits can prevent various gastrointestinal-related problems. For the majority of people, changing certain habits may be the answer to reducing or eliminating symptoms associated with constipation, acid reflux/heartburn, gas/bloating and even colon cancer. I will be addressing some of these lifestyle changes in the new Roaring Fork Gastroenterology series that will be running in the paper.

Is there anything you can do to prevent colorectal cancer? The simple answer is yes, there are lifestyle changes that everyone can make to help reduce the risk of many types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. Eat a nutrient-rich diet, engage in regular exercise, and reach or maintain a healthy body weight. These are recommendations we have all likely heard many times in regards to heart health, reducing the risk of diabetes, controlling blood pressure and reducing cholesterol. These lifestyle changes also reduce rates of cancer.

It is estimated that 50-70 percent of colon cancers are preventable by lifestyle changes. Does this mean you need to follow a vegan diet and spend two hours in the gym every day? Not necessarily. If a strictly vegan diet is not something you are willing to adopt, the next best option is to reduce red meat and eliminate processed meats (yes, that means bacon).

Following a plant-based whole foods diet is the best way to get the fiber and nutrients (carotenoids, lycopene, etc.) that protect your colon. Red meat consumption increases the formation of N-nitrosocompounds that alter DNA which may lead to cancer. The current recommended amount of red meat is less than 18 ounces per week, but I suggest a maximum consumption of no more than one serving a month. Avoid meat cooked at high temperatures or charred. Aim for a diet high in fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables. Also, diets high in fiber such as whole grains, beans, and legumes are associated with lower rates of colon cancer.

Other lifestyle habits that are associated with increased rates of colorectal cancer include smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. If you are going to drink alcohol, it should be no more than one alcoholic drink a day. Maintaining a healthy body weight and regular exercise are important as well.

While diet and exercise may help prevent colon cancer, it is certainly not a free pass to avoid screening for colon cancer. Even people following a vegan diet and regularly exercising can get colon cancer. Individuals should still follow the screening guidelines, which generally recommend starting with a colonoscopy at age 50 for most people. If you have any questions about when you should be screened for colorectal cancer, ask your primary care physician.

Colleen Farnum is a physician assistant at Roaring Fork Gastroenterology.

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