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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Diet, lifestyle play role in preventing cancer
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What is cancer?

Cancer can be many forms and occur at various places in the body, but all cancers share certain properties.

Healthy cells in the human body grow, divide and die in a predictable and orderly manner. However, cancer cells reproduce in an uncontrolled way and may not age or die normally.

Colorectal tumors develop inside the colon or rectum. At a certain point in the life of tumor, some of its cells may break away and enter the bloodstream or lymph system. These cells may form new tumors in other parts of the body, a process called metastasis.

The origins of cancer are complex, and no one knows exactly what causes it, but scientists do have a good idea about which factors increase cancer risk. Colorectal cancer is largely a preventable disease. By making simple changes in your diet and lifestyle, you can dramatically reduce your cancer risk.

There are several risk factors related to colorectal cancer:

  • Personal or family history of colorectal cancer.
  • Older than 50 years of age.
  • Above average height and/or weight.
  • Live in an economically developed, industrialized, urban environment.
  • Diet low in fiber, fruit and vegetables.
  • Diet high in fat, saturated fat, red meat and/or processed meat.
  • Diet high in sugar and/or alcohol.
  • Low physical activity level.
  • Smoker.

Scientists now estimate that up to 75 percent of all cases of colorectal cancer could be prevented through the following health guidelines.

  • Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods. Vegetables and fruits not only are full of cancer-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals, they are low in calories and fat and are great source of dietary fiber. Health experts advise eating a minimum of five servings of vegetables and fruits a day.
  • Eat more whole grains. Whole grain foods contain many important nutrients and compounds that can help reduce colorectal cancer risk.
  • Eat more legumes. Legumes are high in protein, folate and dietary fiber and low in fat and sodium. They are tasty, inexpensive, filling and easy to prepare as a main or side dish. There are many varieties which including bean, peas and lentils.
  • Eat foods high in folates, also known as folic acid (B vitamin).
  • Incorporate fiber into your diet. Dietary fiber is found in vegetables, fruits, legumes and products made from whole grains. A high-fiber diet also promotes colon health in general, by regulating bowel movements. Furthermore, this diet also may protect against other cancers and other chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
  • Studies show that eating red meat and processed meats is associated with an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Red meat is high in saturated fat; limit it to three cooked ounces a day, which is about the size of a deck of cards.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active. The effect of physical exercise on the colon may be similar to the effect of high-fiber foods such as vegetables and beans, in that it helps to speed the passage of stools through the intestines. This cuts down on the time that stools, and the toxins they contain, reside in the colon. Physical activity also is known to boost metabolism and help to maintain a healthy weight. Reaching and staying at a healthy weight can help keep cancer risk low.
  • Don't smoke, and drink alcohol only in moderation if at all. Consumption of alcohol also may inhibit the body's absorption of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, vitamin E and folate, as well as inhibit cells' abilities to repair themselves. If you do drink, do it in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006