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Intestinal fortitude: What you eat can help protect you from colon cancer

Genetics may be the star player in determining whether we develop colon cancer, but our lifestyle choices can also play a supporting role.

Modernized nations like the United States, Australia and many European countries see a much higher rate of colorectal cancer than in less-developed countries because of their highly processed, lower-fiber diets, says Dr. Zeeshan Tariq, medical oncologist at Lake Region Healthcare’s Cancer Care and Research Center. In fact, these types of cancer are the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States.

Fortunately, we can make dietary choices that help reduce our risks. Overall, diets that are high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains – and low in red and processed meats – have been linked with lower colorectal cancer rates, according to the American Cancer Society.

Read on for more detailed nutritional guidelines:

  • Limit intake of red and processed meats. “A diet high in red meats and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats) can increase colorectal cancer risk,” says Kristy Norenberg, a clinical dietitian with Lake Region Healthcare. Along the same lines, meats cooked at high-heat cooking methods – such as frying, broiling and grilling – create chemicals that might increase cancer risk, although it’s still not clear how much this might contribute to an increase in colorectal cancer risk.
  • Get the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D. Recent studies suggest that these two substances may not only strengthen bones, but may also fend off colon cancer. Good sources of calcium include milk, cheese, yogurt, salmon, sardines and dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale, mustard, and collard greens. Sources of vitamin D include sardines, fortified cow's milk, egg yolks and chicken livers. (Plus you can never underestimate the benefits of a few rays. Twenty minutes of sun before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m. is an excellent source of vitamin D!) Looking for a double dose of D? Three ounces of sockeye salmon (half of a typical portion) contains 112 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin D. Few other foods come close to its D potency.
  • Eat more fiber – but make sure it is in food form. Grandma was right: eat your roughage. And it’s not enough to take fiber supplements; research suggests they won’t really help decrease your risk. All fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain varying amounts of fiber. Some especially good fiber sources include artichokes, black beans, pears, peas, raspberries and bran cereal.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Not only do these unprocessed foods pump fiber into your diet, they also are chock-full of cancer-fighting compounds. Antioxidants – such as selenium, lutein and beta-carotene – are plentiful in fresh produce and certain types of tea. Antioxidants work by bolstering the body's defenses against potentially dangerous substances called free radicals.

    Fruits and vegetables are also a rich source of cancer-fighting phytochemicals such as flavonoids, phenols and terpenes. These substances can be found in all sorts of plant foods including tomatoes, berries, citrus fruits, peppers, carrots, broccoli, cabbage and soy beans.

  • Avoid obesity and weight gain. Obesity significantly increases your chances of developing and dying from colorectal cancer. It elevates the risk in both men and women, although the link seems to be higher in men, Norenberg says.
  • Avoid excess alcohol. Colorectal cancer has been tied to heavy use of alcohol. One reason may be that bacteria converts alcohol to acetaldehyde in the colon and rectum; acetaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals, according to the American Cancer Society. As a general rule of thumb, more than three drinks per day can increase your cancer risk.

Besides watching the quality of your calories, be sure to burn more calories than you ingest. Multiple studies in the United States and around the world have found that adults who increase their physical activity – either in intensity, duration, or frequency – can reduce their risk of developing colon cancer by 30 to 40 percent relative to those who are sedentary, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is estimated that 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day is needed to protect against colon cancer.

 How does exercise help stave off these cancers? Physical activity may protect against colon cancer and tumor development through its role in energy balance, hormone metabolism, insulin regulation and by decreasing the time the colon is exposed to potential carcinogens, according to the NCI.

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