6 ways to cut your risk of colorectal cancer in half

One of the most complex pieces of machinery found in our body is our colon.  More than just an inert tube attached to the tail end of our digestive system (our rectum), our colon dutifully performs what no other organ cares to deal with – our bowel movements.  But in addition to that thankless yet necessary job is the fact our colon also directs the balance of fluid and electrolytes in the body and plays host to a crucial ecosystem of bacteria playing a vital role in our health.  Until something goes wrong with this essential organ, many of us fail to appreciate just what our colon means to our health and well-being.

Unfortunately, our colon along with the rectum, are also susceptible to developing cancer.  Because it is a common cancer, most of us are able to name off friends or family members or ourselves who have received the devastating news of this disease. According to Colorectal Cancer Facts and Figures, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer in the United States and is the second leading cause of cancer death.  It is predicted in 2017, 95,520 new cases of colon cancer and 39,910 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and is estimated 50,260 people will die from it. 

One good bit of news is that CRC has seen declining rates of incidence in people 50 and older, dropping by 32% since 2000.  The reason for this encouraging trend is thought to be due to more people being screened for CRC which can detect and remove precancerous polyps before they have advanced. 

Unfortunately, CRC rates have steadily climbed in people younger than 50, increasing by 22% from 2000 to 2013.  It is not completely understood for the reason behind this but factors thought to play a role include increasing rates of excess body weight, unhealthy food choices and patterns, and a sedentary lifestyle. 

Preventing colorectal cancer

Research is now showing that up to 50% of colorectal cancers are preventable.  If all people would make certain lifestyle changes to reduce their risk that would mean about 67,200 people each year would be spared developing this disease.

Here are six evidence-based steps to take reducing the risk of colorectal cancer:

1.     Reach and stay at a healthy body weight and reduce belly fat

Excess body fat including belly or abdominal fat has been shown through research to increase the risk of CRC. 

How to do this: Become a portion-size savvy person.  Larger portion sizes should be devoted to at least half your plate filled with colorful vegetables while keeping calorie-packed foods like meat, cheese, and nuts limited to one-fourth of the plate. Desserts and snacks should be an occasional treat limited to two or three times a week in small portions.

2.     Each day include physical activity

Research has always shown the importance of being physically active on a daily basis.  From doing housework, gardening, walking the dog, jogging, taking a brisk walk or bicycling, moderate physical activity of all kinds can help reduce CRC risk. 

How to do this: If it’s been awhile since you’ve been physically active, start off by moving 10 minutes today to walk.  In the coming weeks, build up the amount of time by taking more activity breaks throughout the day or extending the 10 minutes to at least 30 minutes 5 days a week or more.

3.     Boost intake of fiber

This is an important step to take as eating a diet rich in plenty of high fiber foods lowers the risk of CRC. For every 10 grams of fiber coming from foods daily – slightly less than a cup of beans – the risk of CRC is reduced by 10 percent.

How to do this: When planning a meal, fill at least two-thirds or more of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts and no more than one-third with animal proteins such as protein or lean red meat.  Aim for 25-30 grams of fiber each day.

4.     Reduce intake of red meat and avoid processed meat

Eating high amounts of red meat and even small amounts of processed meat can increase CRC.  Consuming processed meat – hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and deli meats – ounce for ounce can increase the risk for CRC twice as much as consuming red meat.

How to do this:  The best advice is to limit red meat consumption to no more than 18 ounces a week.  This is roughly equivalent to five or six small (3-4 ounces) cooked portions of beef, lamb, or pork.  It is highly advised to just avoid processed meats altogether.  Try instead roasted chicken breast, hummus, or peanut butter for sandwiches.

5.     Keep alcohol intake in moderation

More evidence is showing that overconsumption of alcohol can increase CRC in men and probably also increases the risk in women.  The best advice is if you currently don’t drink, don’t start.  For those who do, it is recommended to limit alcohol to no more than two standard drinks daily for men and no more than one for women.

How to do this:  A standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, a 12 oz. beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

6.     Consume more garlic

If you like garlic, go ahead and enjoy it as research has suggested that a diet filled with relatively high amounts of garlic reduce the risk of CRC. 

How to do this: Garlic can be used in a variety of recipes.  Add chopped garlic to stews, stir-fries, vegetables, and roasted meats.  It is recommended to chop the garlic and then wait for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking in order to achieve and activate the health-promoting ingredients it contains.